Review: The “Grand Meze” Exhibit at the Mucem in Marseille, France

Rachel Black (Connecticut College)

This exhibit runs from May 19, 2021 – Dec. 31, 2023.

Is food the most unifying element of the Mediterranean? By focusing on foodways and culinary traditions, the “Grand Meze” exhibit at the Mucem in Marseille invites visitors to question the construction of the Mediterranean and move beyond a homogenized, cliched view of this expansive and diverse area.

The Mediterranean Diet pyramid in 2011, photo by Rachel Black.

At the start of the exhibit, American epidemiologist Ancel Keys’ (1954) study of the Mediterranean Diet is presented as the gaze of the foreigner, seeking to essentialize the Mediterranean, its cuisines and ways of life. Keys’ findings and the resulting dietary prescription have had a lasting impact in shaping and defining the Mediterranean, particularly in the eyes of Americans, but it has also left a lasting impact on the inhabitants of the Mediterranean Basin. The “Grand Meze” is an invitation to consider the complexities of Mediterranean cuisines and foodways. The exhibit title, a feast made up of many dishes, alludes to how cuisines and cultures are brought together to form a complex ensemble and construction of the idea of the Mediterranean.

The visitor learns how medical research, taken up by industry marketing, eventually became enshrined as part of the representation of Mediterranean culture. In 2013, Cyprus, Croatia, Spain, Greece, Italy, Morocco and Portugal made a successful bid to have the Mediterranean diet added to the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage. The Mucem exhibit presents documents and images that outline this move from Keys’ original research to the UNESCO bid. All the while, Keys’ Mediterranean diet is placed in a historical genealogy in which eating and health are enshrined in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome. What the exhibit does best is encourage the visitor to think about these two recent top-down projects and how they have shaped a specific way of thinking about food in the Mediterranean—one that is commercial and often essentialized.

Detail of Nicolas Boulard’s “Nuancier,” photo by Rachel Black.

Drawing on the Mucem’s immense collection, displays with images and pre-industrial agricultural equipment give a glimpse into the labor that was required to produce crops, such as wheat, which are at the heart of many cuisines in the Mediterranean. On the topic of labor Christine Coulange’s closely cropped films of people making different forms of bread, pasta, and other wheat-based pastry bring the manual skill of this largely feminine labor to life. The viewer is drawn in by the rhythmic motions of kneading and the fluid gestures that come from a lifetime of practice. Commissioned films and artworks punctuate the rich material-culture-focused exhibits. Artist Nicolas Boulard’s piece entitled “Nuancier” anoints the start of the exhibit, casting a greenish-gold hue from the entrance wall. Boulard’s installation consists of glass tubes filled with samples of olive oil from different parts of the Mediterranean—a visual display of the diversity of terroir. While olive oil is omnipresent in the exhibit, there is surprisingly little focus on its production.

Industrial food products on display to show the ways in which the flavors of the Mediterranean are marketed and how they become reduced and codified, photo by Rachel Black.

In contrast to the diversity of terroir, the exhibit presents modernization and industrialization as having a potential homogenizing effect on cuisines. The marketing of Mediterranean foods distills down the diversity of these cultures into the images and synthetic flavors associated with thyme, rosemary, tomatoes, and olive oil. While photos of the “lazy persons souk” show bags of pre-chopped vegetables in a market setting may represent a first-step towards fast food, it is also a time saving measure that frees up women’s labor and lightens the load of the double bind of housework and paid work outside of the home. At the same time, it is women’s culinary labor that often gives them a position of power within the household, as keepers of cultural knowledge and of the family accounts. Labor is present in the background of much of this exhibit, and contingent issues of gender, class, and inequality are largely unexplored.

New ways of producing food and food activism are represented as points of resistance to the flattening effects of industrialization and its neoliberal logics. In the exhibit catalogue, Valeria Siniscalchi’s essay on alternative food distribution networks shows the strong desire of consumers and producers to stay connected and the ways in which these forms of consumption create social embeddedness: “Food becomes a space for action, contestation, the renewal of practices and ways of thinking about relationships in everyday life, from production to provisioning, and more broadly about (food) ‘democracy’” (2021, 207). The way in which food creates human connections is a strong theme through the exhibit.

Interconnection but also difference is picked up in the sub theme of religious practices and food traditions, which are explored as a way of showing the religious diversity of the area but also to demonstrate the similarities of periods of fasting and celebration. Religious prescriptions about diet are looked at as collective practices that often require abstinence from certain foods such as meat during Lent or prohibitions against pork. Contemporary dietary prescriptions that individuals self-impose are also included in this portion of the exhibit, bringing into conversation the role of individuals in shaping eating practices and pushing back against trends such as industrial food and unsustainable meat eating.

Globalization is not a new phenomenon and the “Grand Meze” does an excellent job showing how, since antiquity, Mediterranean foodways have been part of trade far beyond this sea and its surrounding territories. Dried and salted codfish from the North Atlantic is one example of early global trade that likely started in the ninth century during the Viking period and which continues today. Trade routes around food are central to this part of the exhibit and short chapters in the exhibit catalogue look at globalization through the trade in olive oil, wine, sugar, and tomato concentrate, amongst other products in order to show how food connects the world and how outside ingredients and techniques deeply influence even regional cuisines like those in the Mediterranean. The exhibit curator Édouard de Laubrie has brought together leading French and international scholars in food studies to create a catalogue that builds on the themes presented at the Mucem. It is an excellent resource for those interested in Mediterranean foodways and their history.

To further deepen the exhibit experience, visitors can pick up copies of recipes for classic Mediterranean dishes. Beautifully designed recipe sheets are available for Italian caponata (a sweet pepper stew), Moroccan bekkoula salad (featuring the wild plant mauve sylvestre), Southern-French panisses (a sort of chickpea fry), Spanish Arroz a banda (a simple paella), Provençal aigo boulido (garlic soup), and Italian panzanella (bread salad). These recipes come from everyday culinary traditions, showcasing vegetables, legumes, and grains. They are all easy to prepare and meant to inspire daily practices that are frugal but generous enough to gather people together at the table.

It is always a challenge to create a museum exhibit focused on food and not be able to actually engage with the food itself through cooking and eating, and this has been the case in the extreme due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In pre-pandemic times, the Smithsonian’s “Food: Transforming the American Table” and Victoria & Albert’s “Food: Bigger than the Plate” exhibits offered special programming and created spaces designed for cooking and tasting that were part of the exhibit space engaging the visitors senses. It is a shame that this was not a possibility for the “Grand Meze” exhibit. Nonetheless, the rich mix of material culture, art, documentation, and audio-visual works makes for an engaging visitor experience.

The “Grand Meze” does a great job of showing how food is good for thinking about the ways in which the Mediterranean is a tenuous construction that both external and internal forces have created. This exhibit does not shy away from posing questions about the impacts of globalization and industrialization on cultural heritage but neither does it overly romanticize or over simplify food cultures of this complex region. The Mucem is well worth a visit if you are in the area. From its stunning architecture and location to the thought-provoking nature of this exhibit, you will be ready for a hearty soupe de poisson and a walk along the nearby Vieux Port after your visit.

Works cited:

de Laubrie, Édouard, ed. (2021). Le Grand Mezzé. Marseille: Actes Sud and Mucem. Exhibition Catalogue.

Keys, A., Fidanza F., Sardi V., et al. (1954). Studies on Serum Cholesterol and other Characteristics on Clinically Healthy Men in Naples. Arch. Intern. Med. (93): 328-35.

Siniscalchi, Valeria. (2021). “Agir par l’alimentation,” in de Laubrie, ed. Le grand Mezzé. Marseille: Actes Sud and Mucem. Exhibition Catalogue: 207-10.

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