Food as Language

I was recently reminded of a time when the meaning of food, as a form of language, was made clear to me. I was traveling in Czechoslovakia, in 1991, just after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Czechoslovakia was still one country and its citizens had not been allowed to study English, but rather they had learned Russian in school. Advertising did not exist anywhere, not in Czech, Slovak, nor Russia. It took me a few days but at our first stop in Prague, I finally realized that the lack of ads made me feel relaxed, made my mind less cluttered. Even signs for restaurants or bars were rare. One had to walk through the main square and down the main streets, looking into windows for tables and chairs, or a bar.

We mastered animal sounds. I would point to an item on the menu and moooooo, or cluck-cluck-cluck, or snort. Potatoes fried in lard and sauerkraut were standard sides. I tried to ask for something vegetarian, but quickly learned that I would be served a piece of chicken with potatoes fried in lard. If you were invited to someone’s home, you ate whatever they served. Being vegetarian was only an option for the most disrespectful of guests. The menu choices might have been limited, but the food was hardy and delicious, dominated by savory meats, garlic, mustard, pickled vegetables, dense dark breads and potatoes.

After some time studying modern plays in London, I returned to Slovakia, to Banska Bystricia, where spring was in full force and my friends had taken up a two-room apartment in a Soviet-built block on a hillside. They were teaching English to the citizens, some still communist, some cynical, some unwittingly dying for Western capitalism to run them over. I tried to explain that in the states, we never ate at Micky Ds but the fantasy of western goods was greater than my meager explanations about American corporate culture being generally bad for the workers, the environment, cultural production, etc.

It was May 1992 and in just the six months since I had visited last, kiosks had started to sell American candy bars, Snickers, Mars bars and M&Ms. They cost the same price as an entire meal at a restaurant but some citizens were going mad for them. The kiosks also sold newspapers with more info about when the next wave of American corporations, e.g. when Micky D would be coming to their town. Foreign foods, even from nearby countries such as Italy or France, were not available behind the Iron Curtain but kiosk-style spaghetti had popped up as the closest option to an Italian restaurant. The spaghetti was fairly standard, served in a paper American-style French fry cup, with ketchup, and a plastic cocktail fork.

We ate a variety of delicious Slovak sausages with mustard on thick slices of pale brown bread, and washed every thing down with Pilsner beer. The beer was in green bottles that they didn’t bother to label because everyone knew it was brewed in the neighboring town at the huge collective Pilsner factory. The delicious bread came in only two varieties that I can recall. Pale brown and rye. The loaves were round and large and seemed to all come from the same collective bakery. They were delivered a couple days a week that controlled the rhythm of shopping and dining in the town.

One day I decided to make dinner for my hosts and went to the market which consisted of a counter where one had to ask a battalion of older women in aprons for every item one wanted. I believe this was an informal way of rationing. The shelves usually looked like a disaster had just occurred and only a few items were left. Those items were limited as there were no condiments or prepackaged meals, or even boxed rice or cereals. There was only a limited selection of jars all from soviet-style collective farms and factories. That is to say that there was one kind of pickled beets, one kind of flour, one brand of jarred sauerkraut. I had to wait in line for about ten minutes. It was midday and gorgeous outside. Flowers blossoming in tall green grass, birds singing, the Tatra mountains covered in rich hues of green trees pushing oxygen into the town through gentle breezes. When I reached the front of the line the lady said something to me in Slovak. I replied in Slovak that I did not understand. Nerozumiem.

I began to mimick a chicken, wiggling my arms like wings, squatting, clucking, and then with my hands, I caught an egg from between my legs and held it out for the lady. She was mesmerized but still not clear about my meaning so I mimicked a chicken laying an egg again. I could hear those in the long line behind me covering their mouths, stifling giggles. Finally the other lady next to her brought me a pack of eggs. Then I kneaded bread and formed a loaf. The ladies all smiled this time and brought me a large round loaf of the wonderful bread. Shopping took some time but by the end of my trip I had made many new friends.

That evening over big bowls of lentil soup and slices of bread, my friends said, “So you went grocery shopping today, yes?”

“Well of course, how could I make soup for you?” I smiled.

“One of my students reported to the class that there was a foreign lady acting like a chicken laying an egg at the shop today. You are now famous in town.” My claim to fame filled me with joy. Having to communicate without a shared language made my mind have to think differently. I had to think about how another person experiences a chicken laying an egg. I had to get into their mind, see the world from their perspective. I could not simply rest on the crutch of a black and white word, “eggs.” I had to rely on creativity, I had to provide substance, a performance, a physical connection.

The next day our dear friend and guide, Kuko, knick-named after a popular puppet, took me to visit his mother in a nearby Soviet-style block of apartments that looked the same as the one my friends lived in except this one had a view of the garden plots each citizen received and tended on the hillside. Kuko was one of the rare young people who spoke English and to this day I don’t know how he learned. Kuko had to leave so there I was with his mother and a translation dictionary. She pulled me into the kitchen and pointed for me to crawl under the table. Being adventurous I went and found her barrel of fermenting saurkraut with a wooden ladel in it. She had me scoop some out and taste it. It was perfectly sour with a whisper of cloves and black pepper.

Next she asked me to sit on the sofa and placed a large mixing bowl in front of me filled with egg yokes. She handed me an unlabeled bottle of oil. I looked at her completely bewildered. She looked back, bewildered at my bewilderment. Then she laughed kindly and sat down next to me. Slowly she started to pour the oil into the egg yokes all the while mixing slowly with the wooden spoon. She nodded for me to try. I did so. She said, “dobre, dobre,” good, good, and walked back to the kitchen to work on another part of the meal.

Left to my own devices, I wondered what kind of Slovak batter or dough I was making. I was still bewildered, until slowly the mixture started to turn white and thick. Suddenly the mystery was solved, I burst out, “mayonnaise! It is mayonnaise!!!” Kuko’s mom came running into the room worried an accident had happened for “mayonnaise” could have easily been the same word as “help” the way I was yelling it. I smiled huge at her and pointed and said again, “mayonnaise!” She laughed kindly at me again bewildered that I had never made mayonnaise in my life.

Later Kuko translated for his mother and explained that in the US people rarely ever made mayonnaise and instead would buy it in stores along with other condiments. Kuko’s mom immediately understood that making mayonnaise was far superior and enriching than buying it. Kuko said that he for one couldn‘t wait to be able to buy mayonnaise. And there was the difference and the crux of the matter in many ways. To live in a world of consumer goods, commodities, quick fixes, or perhaps sometimes conveniences, or to live in a world where one engaged with fellow citizens and made things together by hand in a creative spirit.

Of course there is a balance, but I loved that world, in that moment, when Czechoslovakia was free from Soviet rule and communist oppression, but not yet a capitalist state, not yet spoiled by financial inequality and obsessions for consumer goods and status. I hope we can find that balance again.