Mettre la main à la pâte


This is part of a series on French idiomatic expressions that relate to food. Read the introductory Edible Idiom post, and browse the list of French idioms featured so far.

This week’s idiom is, “Mettre la main à la pâte.”

Literally translated as, “putting one’s hand to the dough,” it means being willing to participate in an activity that will require some effort. The activity in question is often manual work that is best done by a team, and the idiom is comparable to the English expression, “putting one’s shoulder to the wheel.”

Example: “Comme le propriétaire de l’immeuble rechignait à s’en occuper, tous les occupants ont mis la main à la pâte pour repeindre eux-mêmes la cage d’escalier.” “Since the owner of the building was reluctant to take care of it, all residents put their hand to the dough to repaint the stairwell themselves.”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

(If no player appears, here’s a link to the audio file.)

This idiom draws upon the image of the bread baker again (see avoir du pain sur la planche), who has no choice but to knead the dough if he wants the job done. The excellent expressio notes that it has been in use since the 13th century.

[And the picture above was shot during a bread baking class I took two years ago; I certainly put my hand to that dough.]

  • Italian has a very similar expression (“avere le mani in pasta”), with the same literal meaning. But the meaning is somewhat different: it means to be involved with some business, hinting that the involvement could be shady. You say “Quello ha le mani in pasta ovunque” (“That guy puts his hands in the dough everywhere”), meaning that the person is powerful and has connections everywhere the power is.

  • We have the same in swedish too but we say “put your fingers in the batter” ( fingrarna i smeten )
    We have an ideom that say “For all the butter in Småland” ( Småland is a swedish region) and in Italy I know they say “for all the gold in the world” ) I´m curious how this is used in other languages

  • This idiom is one I will begin using. Mostly because it involves the thought of people working together! I used to sing in the official choir for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston POPS, and boy howdy, did « tous les chanteurs ont mis la main à la pâte pour préparer les concerts » in Symphony Hall, Carnegie Hall, or Tanglewood. It’s not easy to memorize a 200 page mass.

    One of my favorite quotes is from Paul McCartney of Beatles fame, “I love to hear a choir. I love the humanity… to see the faces of real people devoting themselves to a piece of music. I like the teamwork. It makes me feel optimistic about the human race when I see them cooperating like that.”

  • Oh, that makes me want to make bread! Je mettrais donc la main a la pate. Merci Clothilde!

    One Bite At A Time!

  • In America we often say, Put your back into it. But that’s not a food idiom.

    Very very interesting! I love these posts!

  • Malini

    There is another phrase in English that also works” “To get one’s hands dirty.” It means to get actively involved in doing something.

  • Really love your blog I’ve added you to my blog roll

  • Alex

    The food idioms make for an interesting series! Have you covered my personal favorite French food idiom: “une couille dans la soupe”? (If indeed that qualifies as a food idiom . . . )

  • I like this one. Reminds me watching my grandpa knead his bread when I was a kid. His recipe is full of whole wheat and 9-grain, making it somewhat of a challenge to knead. All that work is worth it though, especially when you get to take your first bite of delicious, healthy homemade bread mmmmmm……

  • kim

    In the USA, in the business world, one also talks about “rolling up your sleeves” to get a job done. The implication is that you have to do the actual work yourself, rather than hand it off to someone else. This picture of rolling up one’s sleeves reminds me of baking, but I guess it could evoke an image of any manual labor.

  • Mary

    Do I spy the works of Poladroid?

    Or is that a real polaroid pic?

  • Reggiana

    @ Alex, actually it’s “une couille dans le potage”…

  • hello clotilde! i’m italian,it’s funny look a “madame” to write in english.. I’ve noticed that you began to write in your blog on 2003. you are old like a blogger! compliments.. bye bye from italy! anna maria

  • Joan

    Before I put my glasses on I thought..oh, what sweet marshmallows..’n then discovered it was bread dough…both play a marvellous part in life methinks!

  • EB

    I really, really love this series. Thanks for another great one.

  • Well, seems this expression exists in different languages! In spanish we say “..con las manos en la masa”, the same meaning and connotation as in french.

  • So great to get a language lesson along with the food!

  • Lon

    As a estadosunidense who began cooking 40 years ago as a baker, I love this expression! We have nothing to compare in English. But it brings to mind parties at my house for neighbors where their children get to make their own individual pizzas any shape and toppings they want.

  • Lon

    In response to the post by heidileon 13 Jan 09: I am very familiar with the expression ‘con las manos en la masa’ from living in Panama, Guatemala and Mexico and spending much time in Spain. But the meaning has always been ‘caught in the act’ or ‘caught red-handed’. Como “Lo agarraron con as manos en las masa.” I have never heard it used in the sense of the French expression.

  • Jane

    In that regard, in English, we also say “caught with his finger in the pie” same kind of meaning–or “caught with his pants down”, not a food idiom but same meaning–doing something he shouldn’t be doing and getting caught. I love that idioms the world over are so similar and use the same everyday stuff to make a point. I guess that everybody’s grandmother had the same sort of folk wisdom and passed it on.

  • Jane – I love that finger in the pie expression! Just so there’s no confusion, though, I’d like to note that the French idiom does not convey the idea that you’ve been caught doing something you shouldn’t: on the contrary, you’re rolling up your sleeves to do work that needs to be done.

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