In Poland's current turmoil food has been an important factor, as both cause and effect. Labor troubles have emerged from food shortages, and more severe food shortages have been forecast by the government in the event of strikes. Keeping in mind Bertolt Brecht's advice in "The Threepenny Opera," "First feed the face, and then talk right and wrong," today, in the Food Section, we address how Poland is dealing with that first step. We present a look at food in Poland today and yesterday, with Madeleine Lundberg's recent visit to Poland and her interviews with charismatic union leader Lech Walesa, and Jessica Josephson's interpretation of her mother's memories of a long-gone Polish era. -- Phyllis C. Richman
UNION LEADER Lech Walesa has a constant bodyguard, friend and adviser; he's a big, burly man who towers over Walesa and who is affectionately referred to as the gorilla.
This winter I spent several days in Walesa's office in Gdansk. One afternoon the gorilla disappeared. When he came back hours later, Walesa was clearly annoyed: "Where have you been?" he shouted.
The gorilla snapped: "I've been standing in line to buy food for your family!"
"What did you get?" Walesa said, sounding like an eager child.
"I got sugar and fatback."
The gorilla nodded. He had found a piece of bacon.
Walesa clapped his hands and took time out to dance around the office. "Bacon," he said ecstatically, "oooh, bacon!"
Then he inspected the find while a group of striking hospital workers who'd come to see him was kept waiting outside.
Life in Poland is harsh. Most people can't recall a time without food shortages, can't even imagine what it might be like, and Polish cuisine, whatever it may once have been, is now barely a memory.
During my three weeks in Poland this winter I met a single person who spoke lovingly of great cooking, of whole salmon, fragrant mushrooms, boar and quail. He was an old waiter at the Europejski Hotel in Warsaw. Like the hotel -- built in 1857 -- he too had seen better days. "Ah, les bons vieux temps, Madame ," he said, and his eyes filled with tears as he described the elegant banquets and champagne breakfasts of the '30s.
The Europejski still has traces of bygone glory; it is a bit pitiful, threadbare, and though it's run by the Polish government and presumably doesn't have to make a profit, it was trying as hard as the old waiter. With his impeccable French, his stiff, almost military posture and his shabby off-duty clothes, he seemed the perfect symbol for the venerable old hotel and for a way of life that's gone forever.
In Warsaw, hotels and restaurants were patronized by Westerners, the menus were in French, but the food tasted like central European home cooking, at best. I found a single memorable dish, mushrooms in a cream sauce -- a bit liquid, almost like a soup, but served as an hors d'oeuvre. Most other dishes were nondescript: fried chicken with french fries, stroganoff, breaded chops, ice cream. In provincial restaurants, in cafeterias and on trains, the food was edible, provided you were very hungry. On the other hand, everything was unbelievably inexpensive.
The intricacies of Polish life make little sense unless you know that they're based on a gray-to-black-market economy and that many items, including cars manufactured in Poland, can only be bought with U.S. dollars. The official rate is 33 zloty for one dollar; the black market pays three times as much. Once you've exchanged your money on the black market, a cab ride across Warsaw is 65 cents, and a huge meal in one of the better restaurants is about three dollars.
This winter, restaurants still had a large variety of food, whereas the stores were practically empty. But eating in restaurants is beyond the reach of an average Pole, who makes 3,000 to 4,000 zloty a month ($30 to $40 dollars).
Yet, some Polish families are dining out. They drive imported cars, live in large houses, have meat for dinner and make a lot of money, most of it illegally. When you see the gross inequalities of Polish society, it is easy to understand that an entire city goes on strike to oust a few well-living (and corrupt) officials. Corruption is all-pervasive, and ranges from the local grocery store all the way to the Politburo. People deplore it, they're ashamed of it, but in the end, anybody who has the opportunity or the means will at least try to bribe the butcher: It's the only way to get by.
When I arrived at Solidarity headquarters in Gdansk, I was told that Lech Walesa would see me the following day for breakfast. "When you have breakfast with Mr. Walesa you're supposed to bring something to eat," said my interpreter, an English student by the name of Vera, who worked for the union in her spare time. "Do you have dollars?"
Together we walked across the street to the closest Pewex store, a government-run chain of stores where anyone, Pole or foreigner, can shop with U.S. dollars. The price of Del Monte cans, Maxwell House coffee, Twinings tea, Colgate products and bourbon is about the same as in American supermarkets. The Pewex stores have galled people for years, particularly since they used to carry food manufactured in Poland but unavailable in ordinary Polish stores. Solidarity succeeded in getting Polish canned ham out of these Pewex stores.
Vera also invited me to stay with her, and I spent the following two weeks with her and her mother in a small semi-detached house on the outskirts of Gdansk. Their combined income -- Vera contributed by giving English lessons -- came to about $40 a month, or 120 zloty, according to the official rate. But no matter what rate you applied, they lived meagerly, frugally, and their diet didn't meet even the most basic nutritional requirements.
Evenings we had tea, brewed in the Polish fashion, directly in a tall glass. The tea was powdery, like dust, and tasted of moldy hay. For breakfast there was coffee, also brewed individually, with the coffee grounds reluctantly settling at the bottom of the glass; bread; slices of a gray sausage. Vera's mother made a borscht by grinding two large onions together with five or six beets from her small back yard, boiling them with four or five cups of water and seasoning the strained liquid with vinegar, salt and pepper. One evening this soup was accompanied by boiled dumplings stuffed with browned, sweetened cabbage. The dough consisted of flour, water and salt, and Vera's mother deplored that she didn't have any fat. In better times she'd have poured hot bacon grease over her dumplings.
For the weekend she found a piece of beef -- coarse, fat meat that she cut into small pieces and served in the broth. The following day she browned the meat in its own fat together with onions and carrots -- a kind of goulash minus tomatoes, which were unavailable. The next evening she served the leftover noodles.
Several months ago you could still buy noodles and flour in Poland, and there was excellent bread. Vera's mother had hoarded sugar and was also able to make apple cakes with a semisoft dough, somewhat like angel cake, spread an inch thick in a large pan and covered with slices of tart apples.
I was surprised to find that people talked so little about the chronic food shortages, about the lines outside every store and the lack of everything from toilet paper and bobby pins to matches. But restrictions are so much part of existence that they no longer seem worth mentioning. "Why talk about meat when there's no meat to buy?" Vera asked, and went right on discussing American literature, one of her great interests in life. She also summed up life in Poland by saying: "You can have anything you want: All it takes is connections and money."
She and her mother did have a few connections: a neighbor with a cousin in the merchant marine sometimes gave them chocolate and coffee; a friend of Vera's, whose mother was a party member and had a country house, had on rare occasions gotten them some meat.
When I shop at the local Safeway, I think of a Polish grocery store that displayed one carton of margarine and a dozen jars of jam; another store had one crate of wilting cabbage and two crates of apples; yet another one, a butcher shop with walls and floors of marble, echoed with emptiness: There was a small mound of lard and a few links of gray sausage. The line outside was very long.
I used to look at pictures from eastern Europe and wonder how people found the time to stand in line, and why all of them looked so old and worn. The answer to both these questions is that it is mostly retired people who go shopping, for their children or grandchildren, or for a fee. Standing in line has become a profession.
In the past months the situation in Poland has gotten worse. The popular women's magazine Kobieta i Zycie , Woman's Life, tells its readers how to make do without most of the things we consider necessary for survival. Here is one of its recent recipes: GOLBAKI (Stuffed Cabbage Leaves) 1 large head of cabbage 1 pound raw potatoes 1 pound cooked potatoes 2 large onions, chopped 2 to 3 tablespoons kasha Salt, pepper, sugar to taste
Parboil cabbage in salted water about 10 minutes, drain and cool. Peel raw potatoes, grate them and set them aside. Peel cooked potatoes and grate them. Pour off the liquid that has formed on top of the raw grated potatoes. Mix raw and cooked potatoes, onions and kasha and season with salt, pepper and a little bit of sugar.
Break off one leaf of cabbage at a time. Put about 1 tablespoon of potato mixture on the leaf, fold it securely and arrange the golbaki tightly in a large ovenware dish. Cover with salted water and cook in a 375-degree over for 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until the water is evaporated and the cabbage slightly browned.
I haven't been tempted to try it; but reading it, I'm thinking of Vera and her mother in their small house on the outskirts of Gdansk. The back yard with its rows of beets and carrots preserved under the snow must be exhausted by now. "Spring is the worst time of all," Vera's mother said, "before anything starts to grow."
Like all Poles, they're survivors, and I trust they're still there. I hope their cache of sugar has lasted them thus far. I hope the neighbor's cousin doesn't forget them: Vera loves real tea. I hope her mother finds a piece of bacon: She'd slice it and eat it raw on a piece of dark bread and be happy and content for another day.