These days I have been trying to identify the single iconic product of the food processing industry symbolising the arrival of industrial food production in Bulgaria, and it is the Can. Not a can of soup, mind you, as unlike in the US, canned soup has somehow failed to catch on in Bulgaria, but rather a can of fresh produce like tomatoes, fish, or meat.
During the later years of the Ottoman dominion, Bulgaria was home to many rich merchants who introduced imported delicacies to our rural and mostly self-sufficient agrarian society. After the Liberation in the late 19th century, many central Europeans, mainly Czechs and other citizens of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, opened delicatessen shops which sold chocolate, candy, cured meats and beer, among other things, to aspirational and urbanising customers in the largest cities of the country.
Dishes of French, Austrian, and Central European heritage entered the menus of the best restaurants in Bulgaria which became venues for the new political elite, the foreign emissaries and entrepreneurs plotting murky Geshaefte, as business deals and generally all large-scale private economic activity was known back then.
The average urban Bulgarian household added to its mostly Ottoman-style cuisine savoury dishes a la creme, velvety cream of vegetable soups, dough and potato dumplings or knoedel, soup frikadellen, yolk-based sauces, roast meats and gravy, cutlets, schnitzels and meatloaf, steamed broccoli and cauliflower, sweet omelettes, custard, shortcrust, choux and puff pastry, as well as chocolate alcohol-flavoured cakes, among many, many more. The arrival of Russian expatriates fleeing the October Revolution in 1917 added more taste for cream, as well as an appreciation for pickles and salted fish.
This blissful culinary intermission between two words was brutally interrupted with the arrival of communism and the intensive urbanisation and land collectivisation. Food deficits became the norm which in some decades was more pronounced than in others. Within the Eastern bloc’s economic pact, Bulgaria was allowed to specialise in agriculture which meant that it exported its best produce for convertible ruble – the artificial Eastern bloc currency. This in turn meant that fewer and lower-quality fresh products were reaching Bulgarian stores, and this partially paved the way to the Kingdom of the Can.
I say “partially” because in addition to this, food canning plants also provided jobs to the many (unlawfully) unlanded peasants flocking to the cities to find work. Also, canned food was the perfect solution to feeding workers en masse in canteens as it simplified menu planning and storage as well as optimised expense.
Saying “expense” brings me to this – cans were often made almost for free by uncompensated and obligatory student labour which made them even more affordable.
Separately, canned and otherwise processed goods were the perfect items to photograph and brag about as achievements in the line of improving people’s lives. If the regime had a thing for veganism or paleo eating for example, it would have to photograph not canned mystery meat and biscuits, but just a bunch of greens and grains and seeds, or meat, which don’t look very man-made and thus not really worth showing off. (Anthropocentrism is the root of many modern evils, and processed food is one of them, consider.)
Thus, the Can is the product that around the middle of the 20th century has taught people the benefits of long shelf life and convenience, which have, alas, undergone Frankenstein-like metamorphoses in the subsequent decades. The Can is also an act of outsourcing home canning and preservation which during communism was ridiculed as a backward rural and individualistic activity unworthy of the New Man. Nevermind that canning is a manifestation of the human self-preservation instinct and a millennial practice necessitated by climate and nature. The alternative offered were poorly stocked stores, constant food deficits, queues and queue ethics alongside institutionalised cooking that was cheap, universal, compliant, and all too often, of varying quality.
Still, home cooking did not disappear but made do with what was available. Which was not all that much and this, much in the way of wartime cuisine in other countries, gave rise to “without cakes” described here, and to recipes for “fake” this and that. Also, it brought to the fore a key ingredient in charge of masking the quality of some foods – industrial mayonnaise – which was also a creative way of using up industrial quantities of lower-quality sunflower oil.
Typical examples of mayonnaise-dominated foods are the salad Olivier which all the world knows as a Russian Salad, and Herring Under Fur Coat and the Mimosa Salad, real Russian inventions of communism-times deficits. Both the Herring and the Mimosa essentially consist of layers of boiled vegetables and processed ingredients, which brings me to another way in which the Can has affected home cooking. It has caused it to shift from cooking from scratch with unprocessed ingredients to assembling edible compositions out of industrially processed ingredients.
This essentially means adding an additional layer of processing to already processed food which raises my hackles like few things can. In addition, using packaged ingredients dates recipes, making them unusable once these particular packages and producers have succumbed to entropy slipping into Neverland. An example of this is the famous Bulgarian Biscuit Cake made with packaged biscuits and a starchy pudding out of a packet, oftentimes topped with a grated chocolate or dessert bar. And this, in the minds of many, counts as food for children…
For goodbye, I Can, a song by Helloween I used to listen to when I was about 16.
You can eat anything you want as long as you cook it yourself,
PS. My goodbye line belongs to journalist and food writer Michael Pollan and is one of his simple ideas that combined are to ensure a relatively healthy and balanced way of eating, or so he claims.
PS 2. I know you might not be a fan of Helloween, and I can’t leave you stranded. So here is a Vivaldi string concerto I listened to while being busy in the kitchen today.