When American newspapers began to carry stories about the recent wave of strikes in the Polish shipyards, I knew instinctively that the government had hiked up the price of meat.
I consider myself an authority on the subject, having grown up in postwar Poland as a member of an average Warsaw family. In my home country, meat makes the world go round. The vegetarian cusine has few, if any, willing practitioners among the Polish citizenry.
"A man must have his meat every day," said mother, whenever I suggested that she switch to meatless cooking.
Women in Poland can become doctors and lawyers, but no professional achievement brings liberation from the unwritten duty to shop, cook and put meals on the table before their men. Shopping for meat is by far the single most dreaded task a Polish woman has to face. The government-run meat store does not remind one of a French-style boucherie, or a Safeway. It's rather smelly, long, white-tiled store filled with tired, angry throngs of women. The butcher, a condesending, usually grim figure wielding power and a meat ax, chops off miscellaneous pieces and throws them on a scale to the accompaniment of voices: "A little less bone, please" or, angrily, "What do you expect me to cook with such scraps?" Often lines form as early as 6 a.m. Before national holidays, "the government throws extra meat on the market," to use words frequently employed by the Polish press.
When I was a college student, I used to walk to school past a store window that was covered with yellow curtains. There was never a line in front of it, nor would I have dared to enter. Everybody knew that it was one of those "yellow curtain stores" catering exclusively to party officials and other "special" people. In recent years, a new option was presented to the Polish shopper: so-called "commercial stores," where meat is readily available at prices out of sight for the average pocketbook.
Polish women deal with the problem of meat shortage in various imaginative ways. Some bribe the butcher in the lower price store, who carves off better chunks of meat ahead of time, and hides them under the counter. Others cultivate a mysterious "woman from the village" who appears discreetly at the office door with a hunk of veal wrapped in a cloth. Having obtained a piece of meat without waiting in line for hours gives one a real sense of triumph. How often at parties and other social gatherings have I listened to elegant women, exchanging tables of successful meat coups.
My family, just like many others, did not own a refigerator until 1960. Mother shopped for meat every other day, cooked a few meals immediately and stored them in a small kitchen cupboard, with a vent to the outside. In winter, we kept meat on the balcony, where it would stay fresh for longer periods of time. Once we lost several pork chops to a city cat, who carried them one by one.
"We have been robbed!" shouted mother, flushed with anger. "Had the cat only known, for how many hours I stood in line to buy these chops."
It is obvious that the government of Poland will have to begin "throwing" more meat on the market at prices most people can afford if future unrest in the work force is to be avoided.
The power of meat becomes evident in this family episode: in June 1979, on the morning of my father's death, immediate family members gathered and produced a obituary, which my sister undertook to deliver to the offices of a Warsaw newspaper. A couple of hours later she was back, triumphant. "Hey, I discovered a meat store next door to the newspaper; a delivery truck had just arrived with a fresh supply of meat. The line was unusually short, and I bought this big pork roast!"
"Did you place the obit?" we asked in unison. She gave us a blank look.