In the beginning, milk toast was something people ate only when they were ill. The blandness of this simple dish — toasted bread, warmed milk, and a sprinkle of salt — was thought to help heal the infirm. So broad was its appeal that milk toast became a cookbook mainstay and even turned up in some beloved works of fiction (more on that later). Yet despite being the definition of basic, this old-school meal has a surprising amount of history behind it.
Complex breakfast foods aren’t exactly my jam. I find omelets tiresome and syrup-laden stacks unappealing, and most mornings I opt out of a meal entirely. But if there’s one breakfast I can get jazzed about, it’s a good slice of toast. Crispy, chewy, crunchy — it checks all the boxes. It’s also an ideal carrier of jam, butter, and basically everything else that’s delicious.
Which is why I was initially unable to wrap my head around the concept of pouring hot milk all over one of my favorite foods. I thought, Who would want soggy toast?
The history of milk toast
Did you ever eat chicken noodle soup when you weren’t feeling 100 percent? Or maybe saltines and ginger ale? People used to call this sort of cuisine “sickroom food.”
“Even as late as the 1930s, many cookbooks had a chapter with some title like ‘Sickroom Foods,’” the Los Angeles Times notes. “… [O]ld-time invalid’s foods have largely been forgotten, except for milk toast, which survives as a symbol of squishy inoffensiveness.”
Milk toast may have been one of the original sickroom foods, but some people nonetheless grew fond of it (just as I developed an odd fondness for Saltines, ginger ale, and chicken noodle soup). And while milk and bread aren’t often paired in the United States nowadays, that’s not the case in other parts of the world. In Hong Kong, for instance, sweetened condensed milk toast can be found in many cafés.
Milk toast, meet milquetoast
But maybe you’ve heard of milk toast for a different reason. As recounted by Atlas Obscura, milquetoast was the original “snowflake” insult. More specifically, it was a put-down against those who were timid or meek — which in a way could be used to describe the flavor of milk toast. Milquetoast, however, stemmed from Caspar Milquetoast, a wimpy cartoon character created by illustrator H.T. Webster in the early 1900s.
“By at least the late 1930s (Merriam-Webster’s marks its first recorded usage in 1935), the term ‘milquetoast’ was being widely used as a general term, outside of its comic strip origins,” according to Atlas Obscura. However, usage of the term declined swiftly in the late 20th century.
A food fit for the March sisters
My own interest in the subject was piqued for literary reasons. I had never heard of Caspar Milquetoast, but I had heard of Josephine March.
In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the March sisters dine on an array of delicious confections — so many, in fact, that entire cookbooks have been devoted to the foods of the 1868 novel. As a big fan of all things Alcott (and since the latest movie adaptation comes out on Christmas Day), I was excited to get my hands on the brand-new The Little Women Cookbook: Tempting Recipes from the March Sisters and Their Friends and Family by Wini Moranville.
The cookbook is perfect for fans like me. From Amy’s Picnic Lemonade to Chocolate Drop Cookies (inspired by Professor Bhear), it includes more than 50 simple recipes from Alcott’s classic, all updated for the modern kitchen.
Yet though there were plenty of tasty-looking creations to choose from, I found myself oddly drawn to something titled “Milk-Toast.” Just milk poured over toast, with a sprinkle of sugar and cinnamon, it sounded wholly boring — like something that no one would eat in today’s era of varied takeout options and Internet shopping.But, I thought, if I like bread pudding and french toast, how different could this be?
So, how does milk toast taste?
It turns out that milk toast is actually quite enjoyable. The steamed milk is perfect on a chilly morning, and the dusting of cinnamon and sugar is reminiscent of one of my favorite breakfasts as a child: cinnamon sugar toast. In my version I used sourdough bread and went (quite) heavy on the cinnamon and sugar. The little bits of crispiness that remained on the bread were a delightful contrast to the softer pieces that had been soaking in the milk. And yes, I’d eat it again.
Here’s the recipe from Moranville’s cookbook:
1 cup (235 ml) whole or 2 percent milk
Salt, to taste
4 slices sandwich bread
Unsalted butter, to taste
Sugar to taste
Ground cinnamon, to taste
In a small saucepan, heat the milk over medium heat until it steams. Add a pinch of salt. Remove from heat; cover and set aside to keep warm.
Toast the bread slices. Spread with butter and tear into bite-size pieces. Divide the toast pieces between two shallow bowls. Sprinkle the toast with sugar and cinnamon. Pour the warm milk over the bread and serve.
This article was originally published in 2019 and has been updated.