Last Soup and Testament
(e-SoupSong 50: July 1, 2004)
Accounts vary, but all agree that Marie Antoinette's last days on earth were fueled with soup.
Bouillon, in fact--a liquid elixir of chicken that traditionally served a double purpose in 18th century France: both the first course of a sumptuous meal ("the agent provocateur of a good dinner," in the words of the Queen's namesake, chef Marie-Antoine Carême)...and a medicine prescribed by doctors for the sick and the weak.
If you know anything about the extremes of revulsion and reverence inspired by this Austrian-born Queen of France, you won't be surprised to learn that opinions divide sharply over which purpose her soups were designed to serve in the days before her head was chopped off.
Her detractors say, oh yes, that spoiled conniving woman, she was positively feted with soup, entremets, roasts, and desserts in her cell at the Conciergerie prison, behind Notre Dame.
Her advocates shake their heads and darkly recount that the very doctor treating her for severe hemorrhages infamously counseled Fouquier-Tinville, the public prosecutor, to stop the Queen's medicinal soups so she would be too weak to think straight at her mockery of a trial.
If you're like me, you think you pretty much know the story of this woman. She was a froufrou Queen in a froufrou Court who liked to dress up and play shepherdess with her Court Ladies in a little pretend country village on the Versailles estate. She was so out of touch with the nation's crop failures and famines that she famously (but apocryphally) advised the masses to "eat cake" if they couldn't find bread. She was tainted in a scandal over a fabulously expensive diamond necklace. Her frivolity, her spending and gambling habits, her alleged love affairs and political machinations--all made her poster child for the Most Hated Woman in France. On October 16, 1793, as the crowd roared in approval, she was guillotined in a corner of today's Place de la Concorde; Sanson, her executioner, picked up her head, lifted it skyward, and showed it all around.
In fact, though, this is one of those cases where the facts of a life are stranger than its mythic reputation.
LET'S TAKE A QUICK LOOK AT IT.
- She was born November 2, 1755, on the ill-omened day of the Lisbon earthquake. She was the 15th child of Holy Roman Empress Marie Teresa.
- When she was 14 years old, her mother sent her to Paris to marry the Dauphin and become France's future Queen. Maria Teresa thought her a silly girl ("Her age craves indulgence," she wrote father-in-law Louis XV)--and only sent her when her other daughters defaulted and she had no other choice (beautiful Marie Elizabeth, for example, contracted small pox and became too ugly to qualify). Indeed, Marie Antoinette had been a lousy student, didn't like to read, and could barely write.
- Her 15-year-old husband, the future Louis XVI, was a shy, gawky boy who most loved hunting, reading history, and working in his little locksmith shop. Whereas womanizing Louis XV immediately examined his daughter-in-law's breasts (and was disappointed--she was, after all, only 14), the future Louis XVI was not able to complete the sex act with his bride for a whole 7 years and 3 months after the wedding.
- For 7 years and 3 months, then, Marie Antoinette filled her life with other gay pursuits--dancing, music, gambling; theatricals, buying things, gambling; riding horses, frisking with dogs, gambling--and she shocked the pants off France when she made an outing with courtiers and her household one morning to watch daybreak--the so-called l'lever d'Aurore. Positively Rousseau-esque! Decadent and unqueenly! It prompted the first of thousands of vitriolic pamphlets written against her specifically.
- In 1774, Louis XV died, and King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette ascended to the throne.
- Finally in 1778, thanks to the intervention in 1777 of Marie Antoinette's brother Joseph (the future Holy Roman Emperor) in the role of sex therapist, the King and Queen delivered a healthy baby girl...followed by a son in 1781, the coveted Dauphin and future King...another son in 1785...and daughter Sophie in 1786. These were the Queen's happiest years--so fulfilled as a mother, by her own account, that she packed on weight and mostly gave up her antic behavior. But sad days followed fast: Sophie died in 1787. The Dauphin, always a sickly boy, became hideously diseased, crippled, and feverish as he slipped into advanced tuberculosis. And, with the treasury empty, bread riots everywhere, and the fear of war rampant, the Queen got the blame. She was universally branded "Madame Deficit."
- Absolute monarchy came to an end in 1789--and so did the life of the little Dauphin. The Estates General convened in May; the Bastille was seized in July; the Rights of Man proclaimed in August; and in October angry market women marched the 11 miles from Paris to Versailles, hoping to assassinate the Queen. Marie Antoinette escaped from her bedroom by a secret staircase leading to the King's quarters. Moments later the mob broke in and pierced her bed with their great pikes. The next day, the Royal family was relocated to the Tuileries in Paris.
- In 1791, the Royal family tried to run away to the border town of Montmédy in a gigantic, plushly appointed coach pulled by many horses. It took 22 hours, at a 6 mph clip, to go less than 100 miles--only to be captured in the town of Varennes after a really laughable comedy of errors. It took four long, hot, and humiliating days, surrounded by hostile guards, to walk the coach and Royals back to Paris.
- In 1792, the Tuileries was stormed and the Royal guards massacred. Royal authority was suspended; the King and Queen, removed to prison. And that, really, was the end--all that remained was humiliation, isolation, and death. The King went on trial in December and was guillotined in January. The Queen was separated from her remaining children. She was put into "solitary" confinement in a basement cell at the Conciergerie prison that she shared with card-playing, pipe-smoking guards who watched her undress, relieve herself, and care for her hemorrhages. She spent 77 days there, fed by the jailer's wife and her maid Rosalie. At age 37, she was frail, white-haired, with failing eyesight, and looked twice her age. In October, she was interrogated, put on trial, accused of treason (true, though her accusers didn't know it) and of having group sex with her 8-year-old son (oh for heaven's sake), and guillotined. Her body (like the King's) was thrown into a cemetery of the Madeleine, head between her legs, and she was buried by a gravedigger on November 1, one day shy of her 38th birthday.
SO WHAT ABOUT THAT FAMOUS SOUP?
I tell you, I have never read such a confusing record. And that's surprising, because I found tremendous factual agreement in the 9 biographies and accounts that I read--all based on essentially the same documents. Extremes of disagreement in interpretation and assessment? Oh yes. But the facts are essentially the same. Except when it comes to Marie Antoinette's last soup and testament.
Rosalie Lamorlière, who dictated an account of the Queen's last days, is regarded as a pretty reliable source for the Queen's food at Conciergerie prison, since she bought and prepared most of it. Although a resolution had been passed to deny members of the dethroned family both poultry and pastry and to allow them only broth and rough dishes, the reality was different. Rosalie and her mistress prepared decent meals with good food--and they said they got prime cuts and special treats from compassionate women in the market when they said they were shopping for the Queen. There was coffee for breakfast. Both dinner and supper began with soup, included some kind of ragout with vegetables on the side, and ended with dessert, mostly fruit. Rosalie made careful bouillons and plied Marie Antoinette with them to make up for those awful hemorrhages she was suffering.
But when it comes to Marie Antoinette's last day...well!
Her day of trial? One account claims she'd had only "a few sips of bouillon to sustain her" through the 16-hour proceedings.
Another prolongs the ordeal: "She had tasted but a bowl of soup since the morning--nay, since the evening before, thirty hours--soon she must fail."
Another shortens it: "At 4:30 in the afternoon, having been in one continuous session since morning, the hearings were interrupted for one hour. The Queen had just enough time to drink a little broth and exchange a few words with her lawyers."
What about after the death penalty is read? One says Marie Antoinette went back to her cell and enjoyed a supper of roast chicken by candlelight "despite the lateness of the hour" (it was after 4 am).
Another: "She forced back her tears, ate the wing of a chicken and a roll, and removed her ragged chemise, stained by the hemorrhages."
And at 7 am, when it's time to prepare for the scaffold? "She asked for a cup of chocolate and bread called mignonette which was brought in from a neighboring café."
Not likely. Rosalie, though--Rosalie recounts her conversation with a woman clearly on her way to death:
"Madame, you ate nothing at supper yesterday and scarcely anything all day. What can I bring you this morning?"
"I need nothing to eat, child--my life is over."
"Please, Madame, you must eat something; I have kept warm upon the hob some soup and vermicelli. Let me bring it to you."
"Very well, Rosalie, bring me the soup."
She swallowed a few spoonfuls of broth. The vermicelli went uneaten.
And so I find it very sweet that the incomparable chef Marie-Antoine Carême, named at birth after this ill-fated woman just nine years before she was guillotined, would memorialize the soup of her last days in his own recipe books--certainly improving the broth that she was actually fed; indeed, stuffing it with carbs, as if, in retrospect, to strenghthen her for that tough climb to the scaffold. Of course it takes about four hours to prepare. What else would you expect from Carême?
VERMICELLI SOUP: Carême's idea of The Last Meal of Queen Marie Antoinette Before Her Execution (for 6)
Garnish: blanched chervil or Italian parsley
- 1 whole fowl (4-5 pounds)
NOTE: do not use any beef bones in the broth or to clarify the soup
- 3 quarts cold water
- 6 stalks celery, with leaves
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1/2 cup scrubbed and chopped carrots
- 1 bay leaf
- 6 sprigs parsley
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 3 egg whites and their crumpled shells
- 12 ounces fine soup noodles
- 2 cups peas (or asparagus, sliced on the diagonal) blanched to a fine green with a little sugar
Fill a large pot with the cold water, add the fowl, celery, onion, carrots, bay leaf, and parsley, and bring to a simmer over low heat, skimming as necessary. Simmer, uncovered, for 3 hours. Strain through dampened cheesecloth, season to taste, and cool (you can cheat with ice cubes to cool the broth).
Clarify the cool broth by whisking the egg whites and stirring them and their shells into it, then heating over very low heat just to a simmer. The eggs whites will bring all the impurities to the top in a foamy crust--do not skim! Just let the crust form and continue to simmer for 10-15 minutes. Push the foam to one side and carefully ladle the crystal clear broth through dampened cheesecloth. Let this beautiful broth cool, uncovered.
When you are ready to finalize the soup for serving, bring the broth to a boil, stir in the pasta, then reduce heat and simmer for about 25 minutes. To serve, ladle the soup into consomme cups (preferably two-handled), sprinkle with the blanched peas or asparagus, and garnish with a chervil or parsley leaf.
Whether you drink this fine soup to stimulate your appetite before a fine meal or to bring yourself back to health, I hope you will remember with compassion the words this poor woman wrote three years before her death: "Oh my God, if we have committed faults, we have certainly expiated them." Requiscat in pace, Marie Antoinette.
Resources: Hilaire Belloc's Marie Antoinette, Madame Campan, her Lady in Waiting's Memoir's of Marie Antoinette, Carolly Erickson's To The Scaffold: The Life of Marie Antoinette, Evelyn Farr's Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen, Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Joan Haslip's Marie Antoinette, Ian Kelly's Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Carême, Evelyn Lever's Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France, Maxime de la Rocheterie's The Life of Marie Antoinette, Desmond Seward's Marie Antoinette, and Stefan Zweig's Marie Antoinette.
NEXT MONTH: Soup in a Manger: Tales Around the Campfire