The Blog

Understanding Culinary Disasters - And Miracles

Why is food in some countries so much better than in others? In a classic essay, Paul Krugman hypothesized that British food turned bad as a result of the rapid urbanization accompanied with 19th-century technological improvements in the preservation of food.

Why is food in some countries so much better than in others? In a classic essay, Paul Krugman hypothesized that British food turned bad as a result of the rapid urbanization accompanied with 19th-century technological improvements in the preservation of food. Moving millions of people into cities required changing their diet to canned goods, meat pies and vegetables that didn't need refrigeration. And by the time Brits could afford to eat fresh food, they no longer remembered what it tasted like. In contrast, in France, urbanization progressed more slowly, and most households retained strong links to the countryside and farming - and therefore a collective memory of what good food tasted like.

To explain the American culinary decline, Tyler Cowen suggests that prohibition played an important role by damaging the restaurant industry. No booze meant that profit margins of restaurants shrunk, forcing many of them out of business and preventing others from cross subsidizing culinary experimentation. After the War, the advances in food supply made junk food and frozen dinners widely available and cheap. And with the rise of female labor participation, the demand for these items grew as well. Finally, the baby boom meant that American households started to defer more frequently to children's tastes in food - hence the ubiquity of ketchup, fried foods and mac and cheese.

We are fortunate to be living at the turning of the tide. On both sides of the Atlantic, "real food" is making a return. While the foodie movement often comes with a lot of nonsense - especially when policymakers and their spouses get involved - it is abundantly clear that both British and American food is vastly superior to what it was just ten years ago.

However that may be, the real culinary catastrophe of past hundred years occurred elsewhere - namely in the former Soviet Union and in its many satellites. Throughout the decades of central planning, local culinary traditions were trampled by bland, sad, greyish food, produced on an industrial scale. During my childhood years in Czechoslovakia, this was epitomized by ghastly mayonnaise-drenched "salads" - in which chopped onions were typically the only fresh ingredient - or by the flour-thickened concoction of indistinct origin, commonly referred to as UHO, or univerzální hnědá omáčka ("universal brown gravy"), which was served with any plate of hot food.

While in the West the rise of television dinners and junk food was a phenomenon driven by popular demand for low-effort, convenient food options, in the Soviet bloc the nasty industrial food was imposed as part of an ideological enterprise to reshape the way people lived. In a delightfully written and very personal 'food memoir', Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, Anya von Bremzen explains how canteens were part of the early efforts by Soviet Bolsheviks to create a New Soviet Man, effectively abolishing private life and turning everyone into a selfless, productive wheel in the grand machine of a centrally planned society. And although in retrospect it sounds like a bad joke, according to the proponents of canteens, these represented a great nutritional advance:

"When each family eats by itself," warned a publication titled Down with the Private Kitchen, "scientifically sound nutrition is out of the question."

Von Bremzen, who grew up during the Krushchev and Brezhnev years, says that communal canteens were among the first changes introduced by Lenin's regime:

By 1921 thousands of Soviet citizens were dining in public. By all accounts these stolovayas [canteens] were ghastly affairs - scarier even than those of my Mature Socialist childhood with their piercing reek of stewed cabbage and some Aunt Klava flailing a filthy cleaning rag under my nose as I gagged on the three-course lunch, with its inevitable ending of desolate-brown dried fruit compote or a starchy liquid jelly called kissel.

But sadly, in the early days of Soviet communism, bland and unappetizing food would have been the least of worries for ordinary people. Six million Russians died in the famine of 1921, and millions of Ukrainians (expert estimates vary) died of hunger during the Holodomor of 1932-1933 as a direct result of the collectivization of agriculture.

If von Bremzen's book gives one a somewhat depressing account of the demise of one of Europe's great culinary traditions, Anne Applebaum and Danielle Crittenden's Polish cookbook showcases the culinary renaissance that followed the fall of communism. Yet, the book's plethora of modern, vibrant recipes built around fresh ingredients can be best appreciated against the background of what Polish food looked like a generation ago:

Before 1989, Poland was a country of strikes, electricity cuts, and shortages. Polish grocery stores contained salt, canned fish, vinegar, and not much else. In Polish restaurants, sullen waiters handed their customers long menus, invariably featuring dishes that were not available.

These days, Poles, Czechs and other denizens of post-communist Eastern Europe are rediscovering farmers' markets, modernized versions of traditional dishes, and the idea of terroir on an unprecedented scale. One hastens to add that, just like the recent rebirth of good British and American food, the Eastern European culinary comeback did not require any clever policy nudges. When it comes to food, a simple opening up of markets, followed by an emergence of an increasingly discerning class of consumers, does miracles.

(This article was originally published on The Umlaut)