Imagine a dreary winter, one of several actually, in which strong winds of political change are unsettling decades of certainties, manufacturing plants are being closed down, stores are becoming increasingly empty, food is rationed, and inflation – a term generations of Bulgarians have been largely unfamiliar with – is creeping up, eating at the nation’s savings stashed in jars and under mattresses.
Many people in towns and cities don’t know where their next meal is coming from, electricity blackouts every two hours lend a weird rhythm to everyday life, a palpable feeling of uneasiness and backwardness can be sensed everywhere.
The performer of one popular song composed at the time tells his imaginary interlocutor he won’t have anymore promises for the future, and would rather have one flower and comfortable shoes, mind you, right now.
Another song wonders where the islands of Malta and Java could be, half-bitterly noting that there are so many means of transportation in the world, and Bulgarians are not on any one of them.
There is no indulgence cooking, as meals are made out of whatever’s available.
At this point, Bulgarians know nothing of fresh pasta, red or beluga lentils, Parmesan cheese, mozzarella and Camembert, lasagna, sushi, smoked salmon, avocados, mangoes, or gourmet oils, tea and coffee.
One can very well imagine that people back then, their very survival and belief in the country future threatened, were not much into reading, or publishing, books, or generally catering to loftier spiritual needs outside of their bleak kitchens. In fact, many took to selling their home libraries right on the streets, but as you may well imagine, the buyers for those, though for different reasons than for meat, weren’t that many either. That’s the time when theatres and concert halls went empty, and remained more or less so for nearly a decade.
Indeed, according to Kenneth Clark’s marvelous book, cultural continuity and civilisation depend upon a feeling of stability, meaning people having hope in the future and reasonable assurance that their lives are bound to improve. This is when they feel up to the task of building, stone upon stone, of writing or publishing books, or of creating, or consuming, other cultural products. People experiencing the bloom of civilisation are supposed to feel that they and their communities occupy a certain slot in time and space, which allows them to both look together into the future and glance behind into the past.
Well, in my humble and unbiased opinion, communism in the 1980s in Bulgaria failed to meet many, if not all, of the above criteria.
Imagine my surprise then, when, during the many visits that I paid my parents over the past Christmas festivities, I discovered at their home a book I had totally forgotten about. As is usual with things one has not laid one’s eyes on for years, I saw in it levels of meaning I had failed to think of before.
Chinese Cuisine, published in 1992. This is perhaps the first book on foreign cuisine published in Bulgaria’s (recent) history. What astonished me, however, is this – whoever had enough spiritual comfort and leisure to think about Chinese cuisine in the face of empty supermarket shelves and rationed staples…?!?
Price BGN 24.8. What has until recently been a good portion of one’s monthly salary was just the price of a 150-page book in 1992. Authored by two Bulgarians and published in co-operation with the Chinese Embassy to Sofia, the book contains a very interesting foreword, and detailed information on ingredients and cooking techniques, as well as a good-natured admonition that the Chinese cuisine is immense and this book does not begin to cover it. The wannabe gourmet cook is also warned, quite rightly too, that they wouldn’t be able to procure many necessary ingredients and cookware. Very true, but the spirit that went into publishing this is admirable.
Flipping through this book, I read about many things that intensely stimulated my imagination and I thought of the effect they would have had on an adult person in 1992. Or indeed, in 1997, when, on January 10 people, exasperated by hyperinflation, poverty and insecurity, took over the House of Parliament and toppled the government. Twenty years have passed since then, incredible.
For example, the book told me that the Chinese started studying cooking as an art some 1,600 years ago when Western Europe was still mostly living on hunting-gathering. The Byzantine civilisation had a cuisine, and the Arabs too, but not at the advanced level of that in China.
Cooking, according to the book, is a manual activity requiring both creative thinking and procedure following, as well as patience. These characteristics, the book argues, are very suited to the natural propensities of the Chinese, which can explain the heights to which they had brought the art of preparing food.
According to Bill Bryson, whose book I’ve mentioned here, the impatience of the first settlers to America, and their attitude to get things done quickly, aggravated by harsh climate and the need to conquer an immense land by travelling, is at the root of America’s fondness for food on the go. Quick cooking translates into quick eating and ultimately into not paying attention to the food at all, which, according to many present-day nutritionists, is what’s behind America’s obesity problem. The Puritan-inspired hypocritical attitude to pleasure may be another factor, but I digress.
The book on Chinese cooking also contains a memorable thought, apparently considered commonsense in China, and this is that everything which walks, crawls, flies or swims is food. I still have to fully come to terms with this. 🙂
I found thinking of the following foods and ingredients fascinating: shrimp paste, okra paste, soy paste, beans paste, swallow’s nest (made of seaweed and shrimp bits, not mud), century eggs and duck fed on ginger, among others. What has perplexed me however is this – where does the Chinese penchant for frying come from?
…After so many words, if I had to summarise the basic idea behind this post, it would be something like this: even in the most dreary times, tender shoots of joie de vivre work their way through the heaviest snowdrifts. (God, I hope I don’t sound like a Miss Lonelyhearts here…!)
Or, even more briefly:
the Firebird can cast an enchanted plume just about anywhere,
PS. Songs for you: Dreamer by Europe and Богатство, Bogatstvo or Fortune, by Tangra. Both lyrics tell of dreamers looking at the stars and thinking that that’s perhaps more important than rent or other types of ordeal. May sound corny to you, but a mild disregard for reality is a life-saving technique. As far as I remember, Nobel Prize Winner Saul Bellow once said: “In an age of madness, to expect to be untouched by madness is a form of madness. But the pursuit of sanity can be a form of madness too.“