Eating Around the Empire in a Day: The 1931 Paris International Colonial Exposition

To her sons who have extended the empire of her genius and made dear her name across the seas, France extends her gratitude.

~~ Inscription on the facade of the colonial museum, now the Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration

Before EuroDisney, people who might never be able to go to Tahiti or Senegal or Morocco often attended various fairs and expositions. One such exposition left a lasting mark on France:  the 1931 Paris International Colonial Exposition.

Twenty-five years in the making,  and founded on the idea of mission civilisatrice [civilizing mission], the 1931 Paris International Colonial Exposition brought France’s overseas colonies (d’outre mer) home to its citizens. There was an obvious reciprocal relationship between France her colonies – the colonies gained a sense of Frenchness and the French benefited from the goods and materials produced by the colonies.

The lavish Exposition projected an image of a powerful France , in control of  its far-flung colonial empire, in every corner of the globe.

Yet, undercurrents pulled at this image like a woman unraveling a badly knitted sweater. The French Left erected their own counter exposition, but only drew 5,000 visitors.

Appropriately, after much wrangling with Marseille over the venue for the Exposition, Paris won out. Marseille held its own colonial exhibitions in 1906 and 1922, providing models for the Paris event nine years later. And also appropriately, in 1927 Maréchal Louis Hubert Lyautey took charge of the Exposition, setting May 6, 1931 as the opening date. Using military discipline, he informed all exhibitors- countries each constructed their own pavilions – that their work needed to be done at least 15 days prior to the opening date. Although they squawked, every one of them finished with time to spare. Lyautey served in Morocco for18 years, or rather for all practical purposes, he ruled Morocco for 18 years.

You might ask, why on earth did it take them so long to carry out their plans?

Angor Wat Courtyard (Photo credit: Carl Guderian)

Built on land near Lac Daumesnil  in Vincennes outside Paris, the Exposition essentially recreated villages and major buildings found in its colonies, including Angor Wat and the grand mosque in Soudan (Mali). People from the colonies populated the exhibits, demonstrating their crafts and art and music and – yes –  food. Some critics took exception to the way the organizers handled all these exhibits, suggesting that visiting the exposition was no different than going to a zoo to stare at the strange animals there.

Over 33 million people visited the Exposition between May and November 1931. Many students attended, just what the power-that-be needed to further the work of the empire.

Oceania Pavilion (Photo credit: Carl Guderian)

And for many visitors the food served in the various pavilions afforded them their first tastes of something exotic:

One woman, having ordered “pilaf” in a Maroccan restaurant, sat waiting in anticipation of some bubbling concoction of native plants and the flesh of wild beasts. When the dish was served, she could only berate the waiter, in tones of disappointed outrage, “Why, this is only rice!” Two observers, Jean Camp and André Corbier, complained in their account that many such restaurants “offer us dishes with barbarous names which only attempt to disguise vegetable soup, stewed chicken, and little peas à la Française.”

At the Anvers exposition in 1930, one exhibit , of women eating with their children drew many visitors:

Women eating at 1930 Anvers exposition

Street food attracted visitors, too.

Street vendor selling food at 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition

The hidden message of the Exposition could be summed up in a few words: mission civilisatrice.  It illustrated concretely France’s concern with her civilizing mission in the colonies, her benevolence in bringing Frenchness to these isolated outposts of empire. Out of this was born a museum of the colonies, now Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration. The fact was that the colonies existed for the glory of France, and to provide both exotic and commonplace foods. Even today, in Burkina Faso (formerly Haute Volta), producers supply French markets with the skinny haricots vertsnearly impossible to find in U.S. markets. As Susanne Friedberg has suggested, the modern idea of freshness has its roots in colonialism.

Coffee Plantation in Cameroon

For more, see:

Guy, Kolleen M. Culinary Connections and Colonial Memories in France and Algeria. Food & History 8 (1): 213 – 236,  2010.

Janes, Lauren Hinkle. Python, sauce de poisson et vin : produits des colonies et exotisme culinaire aux Déjeuners amicaux de la Société d’acclimatation, 1905-1939 In:  Eva Barlosius, Martin Bruegel, and Marilyn Nicoud (eds.) Le choix des aliments: Informations et pratiques alimentaires. Presses Universitaires François-Rabelais and Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2010, 139-157.

_____.”Exotic Eating in Interwar Paris: Dealing with Disgust,” Food & History 8 (1) (Fall/Winter 2010).

© 2011 C. Bertelsen