But as 1988 turned into 1989, and as I came to understand the city better, Warsaw began to reveal more of its culinary secrets. Excellent fresh vegetables — naturally organic because the farmers couldn’t afford pesticides — were available at private markets. Alongside them, Russian traders sold jars of Beluga caviar for the equivalent of a few dollars. One of my friends knew a “veal lady” who could deliver black-market meat, and there were good free-range eggs to be found, if you knew whom to ask.
Warsovians were creative with these ingredients and used them to make dishes from all kinds of traditions. One Easter morning, I ate a sumptuous breakfast at a friend’s house. She served me a dish which, she explained, her family had always eaten on the holiday. It was gefilte fish. Light and airy, served with steamed vegetables, it bore no resemblance to the canned versions I once knew back home.
Very soon after that, economic reform came to Poland. Throughout the 1990s, Polish food, and Polish food culture, began to change along with politics, the economy and everything else. The first phase of the transformation was chaotic. Bad cardboard pizza became available in the new Pizza Huts (and Pizza Hut imitations) that sprang up inside new shopping malls. The “French” restaurants that served meat with heavy sauces at high prices weren’t necessarily much better. Nor were the “Italian” restaurants that served pasta with heavy sauces at high prices.
But as political stability returned, national self-confidence returned along with it. And as the economy grew — and the Polish economy has been growing by leaps and bounds for 20 years — restaurants multiplied. More important, as civil society came back to life, the producers and consumers of good-quality food began to organize themselves.
Slow Food, a movement founded in Italy in 1986 to promote traditional ways of eating and preparing food, acquired its first Polish chapter in 2002. It now allows qualified Polish restaurants to sport its trademark, a small snail. Last summer we ate smoked eel at a Slow Food-approved restaurant on the Baltic Coast. The food might have been “slow,” but the service was excellent, and everything on the menu was available. Nothing about that meal, in fact, resembled the experience of dining in communist Poland.