A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did Marie Antoinette really say "let them eat cake"?

October 24, 1986

Dear Cecil:

Did the French queen, Marie Antoinette, ever actually utter the phrase, "Let them eat cake"? I have a friend who claims that Crazy Marie actually said something in French that, in phonetic spelling, merely sounded like "Let them eat cake." Is the line in a class with Humphrey Bogart's "Play it again, Sam" — i.e., bogus?

Cecil replies:

I have a dream that someday one of these alleged facts of history is actually going to pan out. However, today is not the day. While Marie Antoinette was certainly enough of a bubblehead to have said the phrase in question, there is no evidence that she actually did so, and in any case she did not originate it. The peasants-have-no-bread story was in common currency at least since the 1760s as an illustration of the decadence of the aristocracy. The political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau mentions it in his Confessions in connection with an incident that occurred in 1740. (He stole wine while working as a tutor in Lyons and then had problems trying to scrounge up something to eat along with it.) He concludes thusly: "Finally I remembered the way out suggested by a great princess when told that the peasants had no bread: 'Well, let them eat cake.'"

Now, J.-J. may have been embroidering this yarn with a line he had really heard many years later. But even so, at the time he was writing — early 1766 — Marie Antoinette was only ten years old and still four years away from her marriage to the future Louis XVI. Writer Alphonse Karr in 1843 claimed that the line originated with a certain Duchess of Tuscany in 1760 or earlier, and that it was attributed to Marie Antoinette in 1789 by radical agitators who were trying to turn the populace against her.

As for your friend's suggestion, I suppose it's possible that one day, while under the influence of powerful hallucinogens, Marie said Le theme est quete ("The theme is quest"), and was overheard by an English-speaking tourist — thus giving rise, as your friend suggests, to the "Let them eat cake" legend. But frankly I doubt it.

Let them eat pot scrapings

Dear Cecil:

Thank you for so nobly coming to the defense of the much-maligned Marie Antoinette, just as you did a few years ago with the equally vilified Catherine the Great. And now, as Paul Harvey would say, here's the rest of the story …

At the time that whoever-she-was uttered the infamous quotation "let them eat cake," the word "cake" did not refer to the familiar dessert item that the modern-day French call le gateau. The operative term was brioche, a flour-and-water paste that was "caked" onto the interiors of the ovens and baking pans of the professional boulangers of the era. (The modern equivalent is the oil-and-flour mixture applied to non-Teflon cake pans.) At the end of the day, the baker would scrape the leavings from his pans and ovens and set them outside the door for the benefit of beggars and scavengers. Thus, the lady in question was simply giving practical, if somewhat flippant, advice to her poor subjects: If one cannot afford the bourgeois bread, he can avail himself of the poor man's "cake."

However, by the time Marie Antoinette ascended the throne, brioche had acquired its current meaning — a fancy pastry item which, like le gateau, was priced far beyond the means of any but the wealthiest classes. The anti-Marie propagandists were well aware that their compatriots, most of whom were uneducated in either history or semantics, would swallow the story whole, so to speak, and not get the joke. Bon appetit!

Cecil replies:

That's very interesting, N., but wrong. Brioche is a sort of crusty bun, typically containing milk, flour, eggs, sugar, butter, and whatnot. It's considered a delicacy, and as far as I can determine (which is pretty far) has been since the Middle Ages. According to one cooking historian, brioche originally contained brie cheese, whence the name. Nicolas Bonnefons, writing in Delices de la campagne in 1679, gives a recipe for brioche that calls for butter and soft cheese, plus a glaze containing beaten eggs and (if desired) honey. Sounds pretty tasty, and in any case certainly not something bakers would line pots with.

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