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Let Them Eat Cake

Friday, March 12, 2010
We suppose that this post should have been saved for July 14th, Bastille Day... but here it is, nonetheless. Brioche, that rich little bread with a buttery head just begging to be lopped off, would be the perfect metaphorical treat for the French national holiday.

"Let them eat cake" is often mis-attributed to Marie Antoinette -- and worse, mis-translated. The actual phrase was "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" (Let them eat brioche). Marie Antoinette never said it -- or, at least, wasn't the first to do so. The quote is older, and its source not nearly as clear as one would hope.

One version claims that it first appeared in the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1770) -- but Rousseau was actually remembering a still older quote. He wrote, "...the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, 'Then let them eat pastry!'" This appears to be a mistranslation -- but as I could not lay my hands on a copy of the book in French, it's only a guess.

Another version says that it first appeared in a political cartoon in 1740, which may be where Rousseau first encountered the phrase. The fact that he was writing about the possibility of his stealing some bread (to go with some wine he'd finagled) puts a rather interesting spin on the story… one perfectly in keeping with the revolutionary fervor of 1793.

The last version of the quote's history attributes it to Marie Therese d'Autriche (1638-1683), who was married to Louis XIV -- and that's as far back as we've gotten (sorry, we haven't figured out how to force Blogger to include the accent marks on the royal consort's middle name).

One more confession... this post originally appeared, in slightly different form, in the virtual pages of LeitesCulinaria.

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