The words are invariably attributed to Marie Antoinette who, when told that the starving people of Paris lacked bread, allegedly said: "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche, " or, "Let them eat cake."
Apologists for the doomed queen argue she was naively trying to be helpful by mention of "brioche," which isn't cake; it's a tasty roll. And revisionists argue that she never said it, that philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau had quoted "the thoughtless saying of a great princess" at least two years before Marie arrived in France from Vienna in 1770.Whatever the truth, the phrase came to epitomize the distance between the tasteless insensitivity of the upper crust and revolution-minded starvelings who consider crusts a dietary must. Her words leapt to mind the other day with the report that Ben and Amanda Yim traveled from San Francisco to New York to bid at Sotheby's for a piece of cake from the wedding of the late Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
The slice is 61 years old.
No doubt the inedible leftover had sentimental value for Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson. The romance of the twice-divorced American with King Edward VIII persuaded him to abdicate the British crown (after less than a year) in 1936, to marry her (in France) on June 3, 1937, and to contemplate (as some historians argue) a return to the throne as a Nazi puppet.
Food was big at the auction, where somebody paid $112,500 for one of the ducal dining tables, and someone else spent $112,000 for a set of silver flatware. And yet, in a decade when too many Americans bend into sidewalk garbage cans in search of half-eaten burgers, it's astonishing that anyone, even a collector, would pay $29,900 - that's right, $29,900 - for a mummified slice of wedding cake.
"I'm not going to eat it," said Yim.
That's OK. As Marie Antoinette might murmur, let them eat brioche.