Let Them Eat Brownies

Venezuela has just implemented a pre-revolutionary French doctrine. One which got Marie Antoinette unfairly attributed with the original “tumbril remark”…

Marie Antoinette: dignity at the end

Marie Antoinette: dignity at the end

If Marie Antoinette had ever said “Let them eat cake” it would more likely have been “Q’ils mangent de la brioche” (Why don’t they eat brioche?) [wikipedia] Brioche is a form of bread made with butter and egg in it; it’s more expensive than conventional bread and – like in Venezuela – production of brioche in pre-revolutionary France was regulated to keep bakers from only making the more profitable product.

Venezuela arrests brownie and croissant bakers in ‘bread war’

Venezuela this week arrested four bakers making illegal brownies and other pastries as President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government threatens to take over bakeries in Caracas as part of a new “bread war”.

Maduro has sent inspectors and soldiers into more than 700 bakeries around the capital this week to enforce a rule that 90 percent of wheat must be destined to loaves rather than more expensive pastries and cakes.[reuters]

Venezuela is in crisis for a variety of reasons, but the US’ fondness for “regime change” certainly hasn’t helped. The Guardian describes Venezuela’s current condition:[guard]  food riots and currency that is practically worthless. President Obama declared Venezuela to be a “Dagger aimed at the heart of the United States” [nation]  Oh, wait, no, sorry, that was Hitler talking about the Sudentenland. Obama declared Venezuela to be “an Extraordinary Threat to the United States.” And so, dutifully, that’s how the media reported it.


The Wikipedia article attributes the “brioche” as being reported in Rousseau’s Confessions and – rather coyly – observes that Rousseau was probably not a very reliable source. That’s sort of an understatement – Rousseau was terribly dishonest about a great number of things and was an early proponent of the school of punditry that favored making stuff up and asserting it as fact. That’s how philosophy (especially political philosophy) was done in those days, but it was a bit egregious that Rousseau wrote advice on child-rearing after he fathered four children and abandoned them to an orphanage; for someone who wrote about the social contract and debt to one’s fellow man, he appears to have been mostly a theoretician of society and not very well-socialized himself. There is a pretty interesting book, Rousseau’s Dog [amazon] about Rousseau and Hume, when Rousseau fled to live with Hume for a while. Rousseau sounds like a troubled individual, indeed. I was a Rousseau fan going in, but by the time I finished the book I was reassessing whether to take him seriously at all. Hume (at least) comes out looking affable but very confused and betrayed.

Brioche is delicious, by the way! It’s pretty easy to make; I usually make popovers, instead, because they’re even more decadent and a whole lot easier to make. Popovers are the original “cup cake”. “Cake” is a vague concept but usually the difference between “bread” and “cake” is that cake has butter/eggs/sugar in it – but it’s a matter of degree.

What we interpret as “cake” in the US is a style of highly sugary spongy cakes that came in the 1930s. Chiffon cakes (cakes made with vegetable oil instead of butter) became very popular when baking mixes hit the market in the 50’s, but sugary cakes were popularized to use lots of molasses instead of processed sugar. Sugar, in pre-revolutionary France, was terribly expensive and would hardly be expended on the body of a cake. I remember, as a kid, hearing “Let them eat cake” and immediately pictured a bunch of sans culottes attacking a great big frosted angel’s food cake – Wrong! Bon Appetit has a good article [bon] on the history of American cakes.


  1. says

    For people who are not nth generation Parisian baker, brioche is vastly easier to make than a baguette. France still regulates baguette prices, do they not?

    I seem to recall, at any rate, that in recent years that price was regulated in some French tropical possession, which isn’t quite the same thing.

    They certainly regulate the tar out of ingredients, but that’s not particularly weird.

  2. says

    Andrew Molitor@#1:
    I believe that baguette prices are still regulated. That is one reason you get other forms of bread that taste and look just like baguette (flutes, pain de campagne, etc)

    I remember there was a big deal in the 70s when French bakers started using modern additives (I am not sure what) but our local baker told us scary stories of things that dissolved mixing machine bowls, etc. At the time I discredited such stories (I still do!) because I don’t think there are many bread additives that eat aluminum. I will say, however, that the character of French bread has changed. Mostly I think that’s because artisanal bakeries have slowly shut down and instead you have chains that bake centrally (e.g.: maison Paul) – It’s been years since I recall an early morning in Paris with the scent of baking bread.

    If you haven’t tried popovers, you should! They’re sooooooooo easy and soooooooooooooooo yummy. Just make sure you get silicone popover cups, and lemme know if you want a recipe.

  3. says

    Patrick Slattery@#3:
    Baking as performance art!

    Seriously, though – I love watching them hand-pull noodles at the Chinese restaurants; and I love getting bagels right out of the oven. Someone should try opening a “fresh out of the oven” bakery… Get your baguette that’s just cooled, add pate and lettuce, and go! (I just described pretty much every morning of my summers as a kid…)

  4. Dunc says

    Someone should try opening a “fresh out of the oven” bakery…

    They’re everywhere in Australia.