“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 by Ronald Sheppard and Edward Newton
While doing research on my latest book, which covers the topics of food and war, I was really taken by how food, or the lack of it, can cause social distress. By that I mean, chaos and revolution. We fat Americans are really lucky. We’ve never had to face a nationwide shortage of food. Even during the Depression there were mechanisms to keep most of us fed. Charities and other social structures provided if, nothing else, soup kitchens and other food outlets. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if the discrepancy between the very rich and the very poor became such that millions of us died of starvation. I tell you what happen: mass revolt.
There is no more vivid example of this than the French Revolution. Many myriad causes are attributed to that upheaval but most prominent was the class differences in that society. Especially in terms of food consumption. It was the contradiction of great excess and terrible poverty. The monarchs and aristocrats feasted royally while the starving peasants, well, starved. When a catastrophic famine hit in the late 18th century, the price of bread rose up nearly 90 percent. The peasants depended on bread to sustain themselves, but there was none to be had; and food shortages in 1788-89 finally ignited the revolution.
The profligate lifestyle of the royals became glaring. While people died of hunger on Parisian streets, the excesses and arrogance of the royals, aristocrats and the clergy (yes, the Church was part of the problem) continued unabated.
In good times peasant food consisted mainly of bread and gruel (a pottage made of ground beans or soup with vegetables and perhaps a little meat thrown in). When famine hit, even this was no longer available. In contrast, the royalty had it better, much better. Below is a menu for a supper given for Marie Antoinette, the consort of King Louis XVI. Yeah, you could say she ate well. The menu comes from the imperial archives as quoted by L’Almanach des Gourmands pour 1862, by Charles Monselet. Here is her majesty’s dinner:
Four soups: Rice soup, Scheiber soup, Croutons with lettuce, Croutons unis pour Madame
Two main Entrees: Rump of beef with cabbage, Loin of veal on the spit
Sixteen entrees: Spanish pates, Grilled mutton cutlets, Rabbit on the skewer, Fowl wings a la marechale, Turkey giblets in consomme, Larded breasts of mutton with chicory, Fried turkey a la ravigote, Sweetbreads en papillot, Calves’ head sauce pointue, Chickens a la tartare, Spitted suckling pig, Caux fowl with consomme, Rouen duckling with orange, Fowl fillets en casserole with rice, Cold chicken, Chicken blanquette with cucumber
Four Hors D’Oeuvre: Fillet 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, Rabbit
Sixteen small entremets (menu stops here)
And all this for one person. Supposedly, when a group of starving women marched on the palace at Versailles, demanding bread, Marie Antoinette’s response was that if they didn’t have bread, “Let them eat cake.” Whether she ever said such a thing is open to question. It did seal her fate , and that of the king. At the height of the revolution, in 1793 they were both sent to the guillotine and had their heads chopped off.
Moral of the story: Beware. Piss off the people, take away their food and their sustenance, and you reap the whirlwind.