I grew up in Poland and came to the U.S. in 1994. Since then, I have been trying futilely to explain to my American friends the array of abstruse quirks and habits I acquired during my formative years of living under socialism. Recently, as I have been listening to speculation about the threat of approaching socialism here on U.S. soil, I thought, yes, finally, this is my chance to share my precocious knowledge with all my friends, knowledge that will help them to thrive and survive in the coming years. So, here it goes, the one and only guide to socialism you will ever need! This guide is based on the decade between 1980 and 1990, roughly the time between martial law and the Round Table Talks, right before perestroika took hold of the Eastern Bloc and before the Berlin Wall melted down in the warm sun of glasnost. During that time Poland was bankrupt, with a huge mounting national debt, a failing economy, and worthless currency. It was a time of political unrest, a time of so-called shortages, and the time of my gloriously innocent childhood. . . .
How to feed yourself and your family
1. Barter and Bribery
I am going to begin with food because most of my family’s activities, as I remember them, focused on and around acquiring food. That’s the only way to be when you live under socialism because food is not something you just go out and buy. Under socialism, food is something you “organize.” Imagine that suddenly, due to some deuced thaumaturgy, all the food in all the stores and restaurants had vanished, leaving only sardines, mustard, and vinegar on the shelves. This is what happened to our stores during the early 1980s. The food was rationed, and as in all just and fair societies, everyone received an equal ration. The rations were distributed in exchange for monthly government coupons, which everyone received at their workplace, along with their paychecks. Each person received the same exact coupons for four pounds of meat, two pound of sugar, two pounds of flour, and one gallon of vodka per month.
Whatever food was sold in the stores, it was delivered intermittently, twice, sometimes three times per month at undefined and unpredictable times. Whenever the food was delivered, it was aggressively fought for and taken away within minutes by people standing for days in winding lines. So what do you do when you’re stuck in the city and no store carries any food, and you have no idea when it will be delivered? Fear no more: there are some unbeatable, proven, and tested strategies that can help you organize all the food you need.
The first infallible approach is to find a few local alcoholics and barter your vodka coupons for their meat coupons. This was never a miss. The Slavic soul, eternally torn by existential anxieties of meta-proportions, is naturally prone to alcoholism, and our town, no different from any other Polish town, was always full of drunk philosophers and poets. They hung out in front of the liquor stores, in parks, and in bus stations, delighting themselves with Polish vodka, ethanol, and cheap aftershave, casually quoting Mayakovski and Pushkin in a drunken daze. They were always part of our colorful socialist reality, the sad misfits who refused to play by the rules and be productive builders of our brilliant socialist future. For that refusal, they were alternately held in awe and reviled by the local townspeople. During that fateful decade of the food coupons, however, they suddenly became revered. Each drunk was a potential source of four additional pounds of meat and two pounds of flour per month, so the entire town surreptitiously prayed for their health and long life. The competition for their meat coupons, though, was fierce. You had to line up to your drunkard right after you received your monthly coupons, because if you were just a few minutes late, someone else was sure to snag your drunk’s coupons in front of your nose. Every month, at the same time, my mother, graceful as a gazelle, marathoned her way through the bread lines to meet my father at his office to pick up his vodka coupons, and then she’d marathon back to town to meet Mr. Józio and his friends at the usual spot in front of their beloved liquor store to exchange our vodka coupons for their meat coupons. Poor Mr. Józio, with his drawn-out face, red nose, and Okudzhava’s songs . . . may he rest in peace.
A second food-organizing strategy is to fabricate a health concern that would qualify you for additional meat coupons. Anemia or various muscle and bone disorders are always a good idea. If you are lucky and have a friend who is a doctor, he or she might be willing to help you choose a disease that requires an additional consumption of protein. If you don’t have a doctor friend, be prepared to bribe one so he or she is willing to write you a prescription for an extra meat ration. My mother did have a doctor friend but she didn’t need to fabricate anything because, luckily, I had a bone disorder so rare and obscure that no one on the government meat panel was able to verify whether, indeed, I justly qualified for an additional portion of meat coupons.
The third reliable tactic is to bribe local shopgirls to tip you off when food (or anything else for that matter) is going to be delivered to their shop, so you can be the first one in line. This approach requires dogged practice and perspicacious people skills, as you have to know whom to bribe and how. Money doesn’t mean anything in a world where there are no material goods to buy. That’s the beauty of socialism. In capitalism, there are goods you can buy, and that is why it is corrupt. You can imagine my absolute shock when I arrived in the U.S. and realized that money does have a purpose, and that, yes, there are goods you can actually simply purchase without coupons or bribing anyone. In socialism, money really isn’t everything since there is nothing, I mean nothing, that you can buy with it.
Under socialism, bribing is an art, as enigmatic and effervescent as any other art out there. A shopgirl in the grocery store, for example, can be bribed with pantyhose. A shopgirl in the lingerie department can be bribed with milk and eggs for her kids. A shopgirl in the cosmetics department can be bribed with ham or oranges so that she can bribe a shopgirl in the electronics store with a bottle of perfume to tip you off when the laundry machine or radios will show up. A shopgirl in the pharmacy can be bribed with a pair of American jeans and lipstick. And a shopgirl in a shoe store can be bribed with hemorrhoid cream and aspirin for her father. In other words, to be able to effectively manage your bribery ring, you need to get to know all of your shopgirls and their current needs. If she’s pregnant, she’ll need plastic bottles and terrycloth diapers for her baby. If she’s getting married, she will need white shoes. The goal of the effective bribing strategy is to maintain long-term relationships with all your shopgirls, remembering their birthdays, their mothers’ birthdays, the ages of their children, and the histories of all their ailments, from late periods to dandruff.
My mother managed her shopgirls with virtuoso PR skills, cruising listlessly through our town from one shopgirl to the next, checking up on them like a trainer checks up on his best brood of horses. The bribed shopgirl could do two things for you: first, she could give you a tip about when goods, from cheese to bras, will be “thrown” into the stores; and second, she could hide one or two objects of your desire under the counter and sell them to you after the locust swarm of hungry masses left her store. Getting something from “under the counter” led to a well-earned gasconade; it was a sign of your supreme intellect and superior social status. It made it patently obvious to everyone how well you were connected, elevating you in an instant on our inconspicuously sturdy socialist social ladder. “Where did you get that sausage (scarf, chewing gum, etc.)?” “Oh, I got it from under the counter,” you boasted, casually flaunting your new spoils. Like Proust’s madeleine, the unforgettable simple, everyday pleasure one derived out of the green jealousy of one’s lesser friends who couldn’t get anything from under the counter would often sustain you on many lonesome line standing nights.
Yes, because if you succeed at getting a tip from your shopgirl about the next delivery of the desired good, you must now prepare to stand in line. To stand in line, you need to bring a sleeping bag, pillow, and thermos with hot drink of your choice. Many professional line standers had developed their own specialty recipes for the drink that would most effectively keep their bodies warm and their minds awake. The secret was a proper ratio of coffee to vodka, meticulously blended into a smooth, full-bodied mix to suit one’s mental capacities and body weight. If you haven’t been blessed with the stamina of the professional line standers, you can always find solace in the arrangement with your family members to stand in your place for 6- to 8-hour shifts for three to seven days, depending on the desired object in question. Bread lines would take sometimes as little as 24 hours, but the lines for toilet paper or sugar could take three days to a week, sometimes even longer. What robust community-building took place in these ludic lines, with people chatting up their neighbors, and finding lifelong friends, lovers, and spouses. Nothing bonds you like not knowing whether, after four nights of freezing temperatures, you will or won’t be able to buy a wreath of 12 rolls of toilet paper . . .
Since pregnant women and women with children are given priority, make sure that all the pregnant women and children in the family are on high alert and ready to be called to duty or borrowed on a moment’s notice. If you do have a small, carry-on child of your own, consider starting a small business renting your child for a fee. This was a very profitable venture for some entrepreneurial mothers. My mother, unfortunately, had no ambitions to own her own business, so I missed out on the adventures of being a rent-a-child, but I did have an opportunity to participate in some momentous line events, like, for example, the 1982 four-day line for pork chops. . . .
2. Urban-rural alliance
When all the above food-organizing strategies fail, you need to send one or two members of your family to live in the country. Under socialism, the countryside has more streamlined access to food, so one of your family members has to move there, regardless of how much of an urbanite he or she claims to be. Fortunately for us, we didn’t have to send anyone away, as my grandparents already lived in the countryside. Though they didn’t have any land of their own, they did raise their own chickens in the backyard of their house where the garage used to be. Every Sunday, we travelled to my grandparents’ to pick up a few eggs, which my grandfather carefully wrapped in our socialist newspaper one by one. Every now and then, when someone was sick, a chicken had to be sacrificed to make chicken soup for the sick person. My father, the sensitive intellectual type that he always was, would always find something else to do when chicken-slaughter time came. My grandfather was like his son, so the job of killing the chicken would inevitably fall to my grandmother. My mother—the chicken-slayer-in-waiting—specialized in plucking it. Plucking a chicken was always a joyous affair for us kids as we blithely spread the floating feathers all over the house, thus successfully irritating both my mother and my grandmother at the same time, as they were trying in vain to amass all of the feathers in one place with the noble goal of making out of them either a pillow or a comforter at some later time, during the long, dark winter evenings.
My grandparents would exchange some of their eggs for milk with their neighbors who raised a cow in their garage, and from the milk, my grandmother made sour cream, butter, and once in a while, some ice cream. For those of you who have never dealt with raw milk, here’s a valuable insight: raw milk, when left alone out of the freezer for a day or two, does not spoil. It turns into kefir, then into sour cream. Then, if you beat it for long enough, it will turn into butter. Raw milk, when left alone for two minutes, gathers kind of fur coat on top of it. American store bought milk, like milk in every other civilized country that customarily pasteurizes its milk, doesn’t produce the “fur coat.” This is good because every child in the underdeveloped countries that doesn’t customarily pasteurize its milk hates that “fur coat,” as it gets between your teeth. American store bought milk, like milk in every other civilized country that customarily pasteurizes its milk, also doesn’t produce sour cream, or butter . . . or ice cream . . .
In socialism, food-organizing activities are family affairs, and they depend on many members contributing in various capacities, depending on their skills and hobbies. To supplement your family’s diet with all-important proteins and antioxidants, you can choose to hunt, fish, or gather. Under socialism, every family has to have at least one hunter, one gatherer, and a few fishermen in its midst. My uncle Charles was the hunter, and once in a while, usually before holidays, he would gift us with a piece of dead deer, a duck, or a rabbit. As almost every family had one Uncle Charles who hunted, before each holiday, our gray socialist bungalows were adorned with rows of dead ducks and rabbits hanging outside each window, frozen and waiting to be stuffed for a festive holiday dinner. Everyone’s dead ducks and rabbits were fluttering on a rope outside, since the temperature outside was usually colder than the temperature inside our freezers. One holiday, my mother brought a live rabbit from somewhere. She put it up in the bathroom, shut the door, and ordered my father to go kill it. My father refused, so the rabbit lived happily in our bathroom for a couple of days, until my mother, tired of picking up his poop, called in one of her work friends, who came in, killed and skinned the rabbit, leaving my father in utter dismay over his masculinity.
Once an animal of any sorts was killed by whoever had the nerve to do it, every part of its corpse was utilized for something. The fur was used to make hats, gloves, and vests. The insides and intestines became sausage, and the bones became the basis for various soups and sauces. Parts such as tongue, brain, and liver were specially prepared and considered delicacies. Somehow, I have never ventured into this area of Polish cuisine, so the taste of those delicacies will forever remain foreign to my taste buds, but there are those who swear by a piece of cow’s tongue in cream sauce, or pig’s brain fried with salt and butter. Most recently I’ve come to discover that some of these delicacies, a necessary component of any third-world cuisine’s habitual utilization of leftovers, are considered highly prized gourmet staples in some of the most sophisticated urban venues across America. Apparently, at both ends of the global economic spectrums your meals are the same. Of course, the price of cow’s tongue or pig’s feet in mushroom sauce depends on whether they’re served on a socialist plate in your grandmother’s kitchen or on luxury tableware in a five-star American restaurant, with one lone piece of pomme de terre (kartofle in Polish) on the side. Despite my dislike of fine Polish cuisine, however, one thing I did eat religiously was my grandmother’s sausages, which she homemade twice a year in her living room: intestines pulled over the meat grinder machine would fill slowly with fat, veins, and everything else that was left over from whatever animal we were consuming at that time. My grandmother smoked the sausages above her oven, and we fried it on long wooden sticks over the bonfires that we made every summer and fall in the backyard of my grandmother’s house . . .
3. The manly art of fishing and my own Nietzschean prerogative
Under socialism, fishing is the only hobby that husbands can indulge in with impunity, without their wives nagging them endlessly over it. My uncle Zbyszek was the best fisherman in our family, and he spent his every evening and entire weekends, from 5 am to 9 pm, fishing. My aunt Eva never said a word of complaint. My aunt and uncle were considered to have one of the most agreeable marriages in our town. I don’t know whether it was because Uncle Zbyszek was never home, always gone fishing, or whether it was because he always brought plenty of fish back with him, thus ensuring that my aunt always had something to put on the plates of my three cousins, all growing boys. The fish diet apparently worked as all three of them have grown to be six foot tall.
When my father took up fishing, my mother was thrilled. Finally, my father had matured and found a constructive activity—unlike reading—that would enrich our family pantry. However, my mother’s delight quickly transmuted to despair as my father, despite spending his weekends away fishing, was bringing home no fish. As we soon found out, there were two causes of this failure: first, my father, unlike every other fisherman out there, used oatmeal, instead of worms, as his fish bait. Second, whatever confused vegetarian oatmeal-loving fish he did somehow manage to catch, he always released it back into the river. We discovered this when one day I was sent as a spy to go fishing with him. Once my mother made the gruesome discovery, she put me in charge of killing the fish that my father had caught before he could release it. As I sat there, next to my fishing father, reading book after book, chewing lazily on thin leaves of grass, and waiting for a fish to bite our oatmeal, I too started to fish. My father had infinite patience, untangling my carelessly thrown line from the nearby bushes, putting the tiny soggy oatmeal grains on my hooks, and staring for hours at our two motionless floats. To kill time—the only killing he was ever able to do—we talked. Our conversations ranged from Kant’s philosophy to the construction of a kinescope and the universe. To this day, I think that everything I learned about the world, I learned while fishing with my father. . . .
Before I could perform my assigned duty, however, the caught fish had to be measured. Each fish had to be of a proper size to be taken home, and if it was too small we were obliged to release it under socialist law. Some dishonest or desperate fishermen would take home every fish they caught regardless of its size, but not my compulsively correct father. Oh, no. Our fish had to be the right size, and if it was too small, it was released into the river, with all the somber ritual fit for the occasion. Once the fish was deemed large enough to end up in my mother’s pan, I did the honors of getting it across the fish Styx. It’s been over twenty years since I last went fishing, and over twenty years since I stopped eating meat. I never stopped eating fish, though. If the mere sight of skinless chicken makes me gulp, I don’t even blink when I sink my teeth into raw fish meat. Perhaps because this is the only animal I can catch and kill with my own two hands. This is the death that I don’t have to outsource. It is my sole responsibility, with all its grisly, gory details and all its pain . . . This is my Nietzschean prerogative . . .
One time my father was late from work. As the night was slowly setting in, my mother sat there motionless, vacantly starring at the crepuscular horizon. Did he got shot, arrested, or perhaps just run away to America?—which would actually be quite a desirable outcome, as he would then be obliged, by the latent forces of patriarchy and patriotism, to send us regular care packages. When my father eventually came home, carrying the customary toilet-paper wreath neatly wrapped around his right shoulder, he was beaming with pride. Yes, maybe he wasn’t the fearless fish-killer she dreamed of him to be, but hell, he organized 12 rolls of toilet paper and that must have counted for something! I never again saw such feeling of valiant pride on my father’s face as on that cold winter night of 1981 when organizing a wreath of toilet paper was as miraculous as Christmas and Hanukkah combined. In that one triumphant moment, he redeemed himself and all the fish, chicken, and rabbits that he wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.
4. Fields, forests and foraging
To supplement your family’s diet with vitamins and antioxidants, you must learn to gather. You gather everything: mushrooms, berries, herbs, and anything else edible you can find in local irrigation ditches, parks, meadows, and forests. Every autumn, like everyone else, my family took a trip to the nearby forest to gather. We wandered around, with wizened frondescence beneath our feet, sinking softly into the dark, green, moist moss, with our eyes firmly fixed on the ground, bantering casually with each other over who found what and how much. How many mushrooms? How rare? What berries? How big? During every gathering season, we’d heard many sensational news stories about some poor family here and there who in their ignorance of the forest got themselves poisoned with mushrooms or berries they had just recently gathered and were just dying in convulsions at their local state-owned hospital. But we didn’t worry. No. My mother knew all the mushrooms in our forests and all the berries. Somehow without much effort, soon I learned them too. I also knew how not to get lost in the forest, which side of the trees the moss grows on, and what to do when you meet a hog with her piglets. My mother pickled the mushrooms, dried them, fried them, and rolled them in dumplings. She used the berries for pierogi and a thick wild berry syrup that we drank when we were sick. Last fall, my husband and I took a stroll in the local forest here in New England. There were warning placards posted all over: don’t feed the fowl, don’t pick mushrooms, don’t pick berries. The sun shined through the sparse leaves, and my husband was testing the zoom of our new Nikon on one lonesome butterfly, when suddenly I realized that I had never felt more a stranger in America than I felt right here in this strange forest, which I didn’t know. I didn’t know its trees and its birds. I didn’t know its mushrooms and its berries. I wouldn’t pick them even if the placards weren’t there because I had no idea what they were, and I wouldn’t know what to do with them anyway. . . . This was not my forest. This was a forest I could get lost in and never find my way back home from. . . .
5. The organic country garden
When everything else fails and you’re unable to organize any food, you can always grow it. When I came to the U.S. I was amazed by the sheer size of American lawns. Under socialism, every arable piece of land you own has to be used to grow something, from potatoes and cucumbers to chives and roses. Small gardens and big ones adorned the fronts of our houses, our windows, and our balconies. The concept of the idle lawn was a luxury only party officials could afford. Because the government couldn’t feed everyone, not with the sizes of their lawns, it came up with the idea of having people feed themselves. Yes, the socialist government, more so than a capitalist one, encourages self-reliance. In American capitalism, if everything else fails, you can always depend on the constitution and your lawyer. In socialism, you really have nothing and no one to depend on except yourself. There is no constitution, and if there is one, it serves the government. The lawyers and the entire legal system serve the government. The government serves the government. It is so very wrong to argue that socialism is a nanny state. It is socialism that makes people achieve the true epitome of self-reliance. Since most people, however, were living in government-owned bungalows and only a very few lucky ones had their own country homes with gardens, the government had to provide greater access to land, and so the concept of shares, small plots of land on the outskirts of the city, was born. To get your very own share, you had to file an application and wait two to five years. If you were so lucky as to be awarded one of the shares, you had to quickly put a little fence around it and build a small shed in which you would keep your gardening tools and hide from the rain. Some people circumvented government regulations on hut sizes, building elaborate dachas with running water and electricity. My father, however, to my great dismay built only a little wooden shack. Notwithstanding my unfulfilled fantasies of dacha sleepovers, the fact remains that there was nothing more hair-raising than riding out a spring storm while squeezed in our shack; no Disneyland ride will ever beat that. The small shack shook to its core, the aluminum roof magnified the sound of each raindrop and each thunderclap, and our tiny window brightened ominously with each flash of lightning.
Your share had to be neatly divided into sub-plots, rotated yearly to ensure the greatest variety and most abundant harvest. Your trees had to be planted 5 feet from the borders of your share so they wouldn’t cast a shadow over your neighbors’ crops. Our family spent almost every weekend on our share, with my mother plowing, planting, weeding, and picking whatever needed to be plowed, planted, weeded, or picked at the time. For a long time, I enjoyed all the dirt involved, the buzzing bees, the smell of flowering potatoes, the smell of fresh soil, and the focused silence of my mother. But my father had a profound dislike of our share, though I don’t know whether it was because he simply wasn’t the gardening type, or because our shack didn’t have TV. At that time, I followed my father’s lead, so I too eventually came to dislike our gardening weekends, leaving my mother alone with Mother Earth. Fortunately, they understood each other well enough to dismiss our constant whining. Food was food, after all, and as much as my father and I hated the long, monotonous days in the scorching sun, we liked the fruits and vegetables that my mother concocted against our will.
Many years later while at Stanford, I ended up living in a progressive student house. One of the things that made this house so progressive was the heroic attempt by its students to grow their own vegetables in the house garden. I couldn’t quite understand these efforts. We didn’t need food, and nobody had time to genuinely mind the garden, so the result was meek, half-rotten crops whose main function was to feed local rats and raccoons. There was something almost sacrilegious in growing food that systematically went to waste. I looked at it with a mixture of cultural wonder, sadness, and confusion. It was like raping Mother Earth, stealing from her what we didn’t need for an empty symbolic gesture of self-righteous grandeur. In their fashionable quest for sustainability, the students also decided to cultivate their own compost pile in the backyard, but since nobody had either the time or the patience to mind it, the compost too became a favorite playground of all the local rodents, and a constant source of aroma that filled the air of my small ground-floor room. My mother used to manage her own compost, too, but as I remember it, it never smelled, and I never saw one rat frolicking on it in joyful abandon, as they often did on our Stanford compost. Perhaps it was because my mother sprinkled her compost with soil each time she put something on it. Or perhaps it was because she would check up on it a few times a week, aware that it was supposed to feed a good part of her yearly crops. I don’t know.
Our share was located a few miles outside of our town and it took us about an hour, hour-and-a-half, to walk there. My mother made this walk a couple times a week from early spring to late fall. The season started sometime in late March, early April, and it always opened with the same ritual. After work, my mother, still dressed in her office clothes, pushed my stroller slowly through the winding roads by the riverbank and train tracks. We spotted the first signs of spring, but never really talked. My mother was always somewhere else, ahead of herself in her thoughts, stopping only occasionally to fix the straps of her high heels, or to pick a wildflower that I asked for. My small dog marched bravely next to my stroller, tangling its leash in its wheels or around my mother’s legs. Once we got to our share, a huge pile of horse manure that my mother bought from the local farmer was waiting for us. Spreading the manure was supposed to be my father’s job, but since it had to be done before the first rain washed all the nutrients out of it into one spot in the ground, and since my father always took his time to get around to it, my mother would customarily lose patience and do it herself. I suspected that my father procrastinated each year on purpose, fully aware of the fact that she would eventually break down and do it herself rather than worry about the manure losing its nutritional value.
And so, each spring, the ceremony repeated itself. My mother would take off her office clothes, her high heels, and her wedding band, and change into old jeans and my father’s plaid flannel shirt. With a gesture worthy of a film noir femme fatale, she smoked a cigarette while strolling around between patches, checking up on the soil and the roots of whatever survived the winter: her roses, raspberry bushes, and trees. Then, she rolled up the sleeves of her shirt, grabbed a dung-fork, and began spreading the manure neatly all over the ground. Once this was done, she smoked another cigarette, took the shovel, and flipped the manure over so that it was now covered with soil. Another cigarette and she grabbed the rake with which she broke the larger chunks of soil, smoothing it away in preparation for the spring seedlings. I sat there in my stroller, dressed in four sweaters, grumpy and whiny, with my dog on my lap, watching my mother lazily, pointing out the spots she had missed and complaining about the smell of manure. Once she was done, my mother took off her jeans and her flannel shirt. She put her office clothes, her wedding band, and her high heels back on, fixed her hair and her makeup, and washed her hands in the nearby river. Slowly and silently she pushed my stroller as we went back home for supper, picking up more wildflowers on our way back. Our dog, bored to death, jumped around, happy we were going back.
In socialism, organizing a food co-op with your friends and family is a must. We didn’t know we were creating co-ops, and there was no official roster as to who exchanges what, but everyone had a specialty food they produced. My parents’ friends’ in-laws had an apple orchard, so every fall we got a couple of boxes of apples from them. My mother peeled, diced, and dried them for winter. My aunt Kazia had a large orchard with cherry trees and raspberry bushes. Every year, my mom and my aunt Eva, with my three cousins, went to visit Aunt Kazia to pick the cherries and raspberries. The boys climbed trees and I sat on a little wooden stool by the raspberry bush, eating most of what I picked. Every year, all three of my cousins and I got sick from overeating freshly picked cherries and raspberries. My grandmother had a garden with edible roses. When the rose flowers were picked, my job was to de-petal them. Once all the petals were removed, my grandmother made rose jam, by blending them with sugar and a touch of vanilla. My grandmother’s garden was bulldozed years ago to make room for a new socialist bungalow, and it’s been over twenty years since I’ve eaten rose jam. If you’ve never made or eaten rose jam, you’ve missed out on one of life’s most sensual pleasures. . . .
Ironically, whatever food we did have, it was 100% all-natural and organic, and not because we were health conscious, elitist, or obsessed with our longevity. No, there were simply no fertilizers, hormones, or pesticides that anybody could buy or even afford. There was only horse manure and compost. I grew up without soda pop and refined sugar. Without chewing gum and M&M’s, without Lunchables and Gerber baby foods, without Snickers Bars, Power Bars, and breakfast bars. Without Pop-tarts, Popsicles, and popcorn. Once in a blue moon, my father bought a bottle of Pepsi or a tablet of Swiss chocolate from Pewex, a chain of stores that catered to foreign tourists. Pewex carried Western sweets, drinks, coffee, and alcohol. You could only shop there with dollars, which meant that only foreigners could shop there, as it was illegal for any Pole to own dollars. The fact that owning dollars was illegal didn’t stop anyone from buying them on the black market to shop in Pewex for birthday sweets and coffee. My father did too, and so each birthday and holiday was celebrated with a tablet of Swiss chocolate, which he ceremoniously divided and passed around among us like a sacred offering.
6. My first encounter with the plentiful and the tasteless
When we came to the U.S. the only grocery store we could afford was Aldi, a chain of stores catering to immigrants and food-stamp recipients. If you’ve never been to Aldi, it looks somewhat like a warehouse. For twenty bucks, you can feed a four-person family for a week. The only problem with Aldi’s food is that it has no taste. Whatever we bought, it had no taste. Strawberries tasted like paper, bread tasted like cotton balls, milk tasted like bleach, and ice cream tasted like tissues soaked in sugar. Within my first month on U.S. soil I developed a strange rash, most likely a response of my spoiled body to the avalanche of chemicals it was suddenly asked to process. My mother and I wondered aloud whether American children who were born here ever knew what a real strawberry or real bread should taste like. It seemed incomprehensible that in this richest country in the world, most of its citizens grew up never knowing the taste of real food. Eventually, I got used to tasteless food, and my rashes went away, but eating became a constantly failed search for the lost taste. It took me thirteen years before I could afford the same kind of food I ate as a child. I remember the anticipation I felt when I finally bought my first pint of organic strawberries. Would they taste like those from my mother’s share? Or would they taste like paper? Another irony of socialist life was that though our socialist government was not able to maintain regular delivery of bread or toilet paper to its stores, it had ambitions to produce and deliver luxury goods. In fact, each country in the socialist bloc proudly exported its own brand of luxury: Poles had world-class vodka, Russians had Beluga caviar, Cubans, our friends, had cigars, and Hungarians had their Royal Tokaji (currently sold online at $500 for a half-bottle). Once in a while, usually for their anniversary, my parents enjoyed some of these perks of socialist living as all the countries in the socialist bloc would customarily exchange their luxury goods at nominal mark-ups. Since I was too young to participate in these pleasures of adult life, unfortunately, I missed that part. It will probably take me another thirteen years before sentiment moves me to splurge on Russian caviar or half a glass of Tokaji. . . .
7. Eating habits here and there, then and now, and why a 12-step program doesn’t always change your ways
Depending on the circumstances you grew up in, you develop different food habits. My grandmother, who spent her youth in a German labor camp, had a habit of hiding breadcrumbs in her pockets. My American friends who grew up under capitalism like to throw food fights. I, who grew up under socialism, developed a habit of leaving half of my meal on a plate for later, just in case I needed it in the future. This way, I am always certain to know where my next meal comes from. When I got married, the habit became less burdensome and, in fact, very much appreciated by my husband, who, oblivious to my covert prudence, would gleefully consume whatever I left on my plate. Although with the help of my all-devouring husband, I managed to 12-step myself out of the habit, there are still occasional moments when it returns. Three weeks ago, I had dinner with a friend. It was a nice downtown restaurant with starched white tablecloths and stainless steel candlesticks, my friend was smiling at me genially, and I never felt farther away from socialism than I felt at that moment. But then, in the middle of my meal, the impulse came to stop eating, to leave it for later, just in case. . .