The years immediately preceding the French Revolution were a time of great excess
and terrible poverty. Royalty feasted on rich confections and huge roasts; the starving
peasants ate anything they could find, including stale bread and scraps. In 18th century
France, new world foods, most notably potatoes, played a pivotal role in feeding the
The Revolution was a great culinary equalizer. The fall of the Royal regime created
(by necessity) a more egalitarian cuisine. Food, and the concept of how it was eaten
changed radically. During the revolution another notable French "invention" happened.
The restaurant. The first restaurants were quite different from what we know today.
Their initial purpose was to serve healthy restoratifs (soup!) to anybody who could pay.
"The eighteenth century was a great century for cooking, but the progress made and
the refinements added to the art of cooking were briefly interrupted by the French
Revolution. In 1789 the French Revolution broke out, and according to one observer
at the time, it "served the soverign people a dish of lentils, seasoned with nothing but
the love of their country, which did very little to improve their blandness." The interest
in cooking and gastronomy was temporarily interrupted, but when things had calmed
down enough in 1795, a little book entitled La Cuisiniere Republicaine was published.
It was written by a Mme. Merigot, who gives recipes for potatoes (unnacceptable until
then as a food by the French.)"
---The Grand Masters of French Cuisine: Five Centuries of Great Cooking, Celine
Vence and Robert Courtine [G.P. Putnam:New York] 1978 (p. 55)
[NOTE: This books has much more information/recipes than can be paraphrased here.
Ask your librarian to help you find this book.
The bread question
"Let them eat cake," Marie Antoinette allegedly pronounced. What was this cake and
why is this phrase so important? Parisians were indeed starving in the years preceding
the French Revolution. Bread, while commonly employed for its symbolic connection
as the "staff of life," was not the only commodity in short supply. There were several
reasons for these food shortages, number one being a population explosion. Other key
factors included war (farmers pressed into service meant neglected fields), weather
conditions (severe drought), and economics (inadequate distribution systems).
"A shortage of bread has been suggested as the cause of the fall of Rome, the French
Revolution, and the Russian Revolution of 1917."
---The Story of Bread, Ronald Sheppard and Edward Newton [Charles T. Branford:
Boston MA] 1957 (p. 58)
"Bread was the staple food of the masses and it was poverty which caused the
[French Revolution] rebellion. The more naive than caustic comments of Marie
Antoinette, 'Let them eat cake,' was explosive in an already tense atmosphere. What
the people wanted was bread, with all its symbolic implications."
---Gastronomy of France, Raymond Oliver, translated from the French by Claude
Durrell [Wolrd Publishing Co.:Cleveland OH] 1967 (p. 107-108)
"'The people was all roaring out Voila le boulanger et la boulangere et let petit mitron,
saying that now they should have bread as they now had got the baker and his wife
and boy.' The year was 1789, the place Paris, the 'baker' Louis XVI and the 'bakers wife',
Marie Antoinette. The French Revolution had not...been sparked off by hunger or high
prices, and Marie Antoineette's relentlessy mistranslated remark that if there was not
dread, the people whould eat 'cake' was no more than one of those minor but eminently
quotable political gaffes that their perpetrators are never allowed to forget. Bread
shortages had always been a fact of Parisian life, productive of nothing more serious
than an occasional riot. It was only after the middle classes made the first breach in the
defences of the privileged elite that the ordinary people of France began to take a hand
in the game. While the Constitutent Assembly discussed the Declaration of the Rights
of Man and the abolition of aristocratic privileges, the market women of Paris took the
opportunitiy of demonstrating their disapproval of the fact that, after a series of disasterous
harvests, a four-pound loaf now cost 14 1/2 sous. The effective daily wage of a builder's
labourer at the time was 18 sous. Throughout the 1790s far more serious food crises and
riots were to bedevil the plans of the revolutionaries and their successors--and to sound a
warning to the governments of other countries confronted with the problem of expanding
towns and an unprecedented increase in population. The problem was more one of
distribution than production since agricultural developments were taking place that
promised to make shortages a thing of the past."
---Food in History, Reay Tannahill [Three Rivers Press:New York] 1988 (p. 283)
"...in France...there was a new investment by the state in solving problems of food
distribution that had previously been the responsibility of individual cities...French
monarchs in the eighteetnh century became increasingly concerned with the possibility
wheat and promulgated new laws governing the sale of grain. Both responses appear to
have improved the situation, but not everyone agreeed that this was the case. In The
Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question, 1700-1775, Steven Kaplan has shown that
when merchants followed the king's orders to stockpile grain, their actions were often
interpreted as attempts to corner the market in order to drive up prices. Large-scale
wheat purchases did in fact raise prices on local markets and force some people to
go hungry, and critics saw this as evidence of a "famine conspiracy." Furthermore,
laws promoting free trade in grain, which ultimately stimulated new cereal production,
had to be withdrawn or modified on several accasions in the face of vehement protests
by various groups: the best known of these episodes was the "flour war" of 1775...Was
the French government right to intervene in the food distribution system rather than
leave it, as in the past and as in some other coutnries, in the hands of municipal
governments and private interests? It would have been difficult to have acted
differently: whereas popular protest in the seventeenth century had been directed
mainly against taxes, int eh eighteenth century it was directed maily against shortages
of bread. Although these disturbances were not as severe as in previous centuries, they
could not be neglected. Thus the bread question became the paramount political issue
of the day, just as wheat came to dominate agriculture and the popular diet...Antoine
Parmentier, suggested making bread with flour from potatoes, which could be grown
in fallow fields between grain harvests and with helds tow to three times greater than
that for wheat. But in many parts of Europe people did not yet feel miserable enough
to accept such fare, which was considreed fit only for hogs, eveni if it could be turned
---Food: A Culinary History, Jean-Louis Flandrin & Massimo Montanari
[Columbia University Press:New York] 1999 (p. 354-355)
"In the months before the storming of the Bastille the people of Paris commenced
once more to greet each other with the forbidden greeting of the Jacquerie: "Le pain
se leve..." What bread? There was none...most Frenchmen believed that the lack of
grain was due to a conspiracy...There is no doubt that the grain speculators were
making a great deal of money at the time...The unique factor was the mass delusion
that the purpose of their speculation as to "exterminate the French nation."..It was said
that Louis XV had already earned ten millions pounds as a result of this murderous
conspiracy. The society was alleged to be buying cheaply all the grain in France,
secretly exporting it, buying it again from abroad, and importing it back to France at
tenfold the original price...The fact was that all export of grain from France had been
prohibited for the past hundred years...Revolt was...raging in the provinces...The
Bastille had been stormed--but the people of Paris did not yet have their bread...In fact,
in the days after the storming of the Bastille there was an unusual shortage of flour. The
people could not feed on the glory of the Revolution. Why did a four-pound bread
still cost 12 1/2 sous and a white bread 14 1/2? The government provided subsidies so
that the bakers would lower their price. But this did not increase the supply of bread.
The angy populace lost precious hours waiting in front of the bakeries. To be sure,
Parmentier's potato bread was much cheaper. But who was interested in Parmentier
and his bakers' college? That was...nonsense. Parmentier's experiments--it was unjustly
said--were donducted only so that the rich could cram something into the mouths of
the poor. Let him eat his potates himself. "We want bread!" the people shouted...[in]
August 1789...a drought had come upon France worse than any the nation remembered.
The streams dried up. The result was that the mills could not run. There were windmills
only in the provinces of northern France. In central and southern France all milling was
done in water mills. Now the little grain there was could not be ground! The Minister of
Agriculture at once ordered the erection of horse-driven mills. But this took time. In
September the supply of bread in Paris dwindled away again, and the price rose shamelessly.
The seething masses became convinced that the Court still had bread...In the early morning
of October 5, 1789, Paris spewed her torrents of human beings out into the misty roads.
They marched with pikes and scythes, barefood and in rags...The masses were obsessed
with hallucinations. "Did you see the bread wagons?" "Yes, bread wagons on the horizon!
"...King Louis XVI had turned off the water in the park--it was needed to run the mill.
Because the water no long splashed in the fountains, the villages around Versialles had
bread--though there was not enough for Paris. All at once it occurred to the marchers that
perhaps the king himself had not much bread...The women's cries from bread died down...
When they returned, there was general disappointment. Paris had though it would now
begin to rain bread...but...Louis XVI could not conjure up bread...Fourteen hungry days passed..."Watch out for the bakers" became the watchword. "The bakers have hidden flour.
They want to wait until we can pay more."...Both the National Assembly and the
administrators knew that whether the nation were kingdom or republic, the people would
hang all authorities who did not solve the bread problem. But the bread problem could
not be solved. The National Assembly set aside 400,000 pounds for agricultural aid, but
this still not solve the problem...Where was the bread? The flow of grain dwindled to a
trickle, as it had when the despots reigned, and the bakers' ovens remained empty...Grain
had to be procured--but how? Trade was unpopular...Traders must be speculators, therefore
cheats...At great cost the city of Paris bought grain abroad...What monsters there were
among the people; such individuals as those who on August 7, 1793, spirited away
7,5000 pounds of bread out of starving Paris becasue they hoped to obtain higher prices
in the provinces...All the guilty men were executed...In Ocober 1793 Paris once more
received flour...The Commune of Paris decreed that from then on only a single type of
bread could be baked in the city--the pain d'egalite. The flour sieves of millers and bakers
\were confiscated, for they were a symbol of fine berads. All, poor and rich, would have
\bread of equally poor quality... On Decmeber 2, 1793, the bread card was introduced;
and eighteen months later the Commune decided upon free distribution of bread: one and
a half pounds daily to workers and the heads of families, one pound to all others. Before
long all there was of bread were the cards. In 1794 the harvest was pitifully small...Men
killed one another for bread...France saw no bread until peace came. The Revolution had
not been able to produce it, and the war made it impossible to distrubute it. It was until
the period of the Directory, from 1796 on, that the soldiers were furloughed; they returned
to the fields which now no longer belonged to landowners but to themselves and their
families, and they began to till these fields. Such was the role of bread in the French
---Six Thousand Years of Bread, H.E. Jacob [Lyons Press:New York] 1997 (p. 246-254)
"For a time, food prices rose dramatically; crops planted by farmers, who were then
drafted into the Republic's armies, went unharvested...Attempting to impose fraternal
solidarity by means of food distribution programs, more than one revolutionary demanded
that bakers stop preparing their typical range of breadstuffs and combine brown, white,
and rye flours together to make one single "Bread of Equality." In the capitol, in Februrary
1792, shortages led to the outbreak of popular street protests, but, as William Sewell has
noted, the men and women of Paris were rioting not for bread, the totemic staff of life,
but for sugar, soap, and candles. Sewell's point is particualrly well take, for the radical
revolutionary rhetoric of "subsistence" has long led historians to believe that the danger
of famine was the driving force behind many of the National Convention's economic
policies. True, the Convention passed "the Maximum" in September 1793, putting it
in effect a broad series of...price-fixing regulations... That these "necessities" included
not only bread and wine, but cheeses, butter, honey, and sausages as well..."Subsistence"
was certainly at the heart of much revolutionary rhetoric; but revolutions do not subsist
on bread alone."
---The Invention of the Restaurant, Rebecca L. Spang [Harvard University Press:
Cambridge MA] 2000 (p. 106-107)
Many of the fruits growing in France during the Revolutionary period (mid-late
18th century) were introduced by the Romans in ancient times. They flourished
according to agreeable climate, accomodating soil, and nurturing farmers. In the l
ate 18th century, fresh fruits were consumed in season. Fruits were also preserved
(dried or sugared) for use in baked goods, confectionery, bread spreads (jams, jellies),
cake and pie filling. Grimod de la Reyniere's Almanach des Gourmands (early 19th
century) mentions these fruits in the dessert chapter: strawberries, cherries, apricots,
redcurrants, raspberries, peaches, plums, greengages, raisins, figs, melons, blackberries,
Seville oranges, lemons, apples, pears and pineapples. Grapes were used for wine;
probably also consumed as fruit.
The 17th century marked the genesis of classic French Cuisine. Food historians tell
us the nobles of this period followed this new trend, supporting the chefs and their
ideas wll into the 18th century. By the 18th century, the noble and wealthy classes
were dining in the manner of "Grand Cuisine." Multi-course meals and elaborate
service were the hallmarks of this style. Notable chefs/cookbook authors included
Massialot, La Chappelle, Marin, and Menon.
"Louis XVI did not inherit Louis XV's delicate taste in food. Like the Sun King,
he was a glutton...During their reign Louis and Marie-Antoinette dined every Sunday
in public. But the queen only pretended to eat...She dined afterwards in her apartments,
among her intimates."
---An Illustrated History of French Cuisine, Christian Guy [Bramhall House:New York]
196 (p. 86)
Supper given...for Marie Antoinette
...menu of this supper from the imperial archives quoted by L'Almanach des
Gourmands pour 1862, by Charles Monselet. Her Majesty's Dinner, Thursday
24 July 1788 at Trianon:
Rice soup, Scheiber, Croutons with lettuce, Croutons unis pour Madame
Two Main Entrees
Rump of beef with cabbage, Loin of veal on the spit
Spanish pates, Grilled mutton cutlets, Rabbits on the skewer, Fowl wings a la
Four Hors D'Oeuvre
Fillets of rabbit, Breast of veal on the spit, Shin of veal in consomme, Cold turkey
Six dishes of roasts
Chickens, Capon fried with eggs and breadcrumbs, Leveret, Young turkey, Partridges,
Sixteen small entremets
(menu stops here)
---Gastronomy of France, Raymond Oliver, translated from the French by Claude
Durrell [Wine and Food Society:Cleveland OH] 1967 (p. 300-1)
Middle class food
"The difference that existed, up to the end of the seventeenth century, between
ordinary, everyday bourgeois cooking and aristocratic cooking was a difference in
quantity and in elaborateness of presentation. Beginning in about 1750, the cuisine
of ordinary days and that of special occasions were separated by a difference in kind,
quality, and method. Ordinary cuisine naturally remained closer to old-style cuisine,
for reasons of cost and convenience. According to Brillat-Savarin who, who had
gathered his information from the inhabitants of several departments, a dinner for ten
persons around the year 1740 was composed of the following:
First service...boiled meatThis order, with the succession of the boiled and roasted as its prinicpal distinguising
an entree of veal cooked in its own juice;
an hors-d'oeuvre.Second service...a turkey;
a vegetable dish;
a cream (sometimes)
A pot of jam
characteristic, was to remain practically the same in private homes down to the end
of the nineteenth century. In Zola, it is the typical bourgeois menu."
---Culture and Cuisine: A Journey Through the History of Food, Jean-Francois Revel [Doubleday:Garden City NY] 1982, English translation (p. 193-4)
Daily meals for the "average" person consisted of bread, pottage (gruel from ground
beans or soup with vegetables and perhaps a little meat), fruit, berries & nuts (in season)
and wine. If you need to make/take something to class to signify this particular period
in French history we suggest basic a loaf of French bread and a simple dish of potatoes.
These would have been foods consumed daily by most of the people at that time.
Here is a recipe...with historic notes...for "Pommes de Terre a L'Econome," Cuisinier
"Although potatoes could have been grown in Franceearlier, it was not until the French Revolution in 1789that this precious vegetable was accepted by the French.The French accepted it only because famine, and the economic exigencies of the Revolution, forced it on them. The potatohad long been considered poisonous inFrance, but once the French tried it and survived, they showed a surprising amount of enthusiasm for this "new" food. Thefollowing recipe is taken from one of the first postrevolutionaryFrench cookbooks and is one of the earliest French recipes using potatoes.Pommes de terre a l'econome
Ingredients: (for 4 servings): 3 sprigs parsley, finely chopped.1 scallion, finely chopped. 4 shallots, peeled and finely chopped.2 cups chopped cooked meat (leftover meat or poultry).2 pounds potatoes.3 1/2 tablespoons butter.1 egg. 1 egg, separated.Salt. Pepper. Flour. Oil for frying. Chopped parsley (to garnish).The Herbs and the Meat: Mix the finely chopped parsely,scallion, and shallots with the chopped meat. The Potatoes:Boil the potatoes in their jackets (skins) for thirty minutesin lightly salted water. Peel while still hot; then mash witha fork. The Patties: Combine the mashed potatoes and thechopped ingredients. Add the butter, egg, and egg yolk. Saltand pepper to taste. Shape into medium patties. (If they aretoo small, they will be too crunchy, and if too large, thecenters will not cook thoroughly.) Beat the egg white untilit begins to stiffen. Dip the patties into the egg white; thenroll them in flour. Cooking the Patties: Place the patties in afrying pan with very hot oil. Turn so that they will brownon all sides. To Serve: Drain well, and serve garnishedwith parsley."
---The Grand Masters of French Cuisine: Five Centuriesof Great Cooking, Celine Vence and Robert Courtine
[G.P. Putnam:New York]
1978 (p. 253)