In Other Words
How Poland learned to love its own cuisine.
In the winter of 1988, when I first moved to Poland, Warsaw had two types of restaurants. The first type was formal, empty, state-owned, and dusty, lit by flickering, hissing fluorescent bulbs. They had long menus from which one could select dishes — mostly roast pork, in various guises, or watery soups — which might or might not actually appear. The waiters were bored, or just plain rude: "They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work," went the mantra. They might take an order, amble into the kitchen, amble back again, and announce that whatever you wanted was gone, and probably most other things were too. If you protested, they shrugged.
The second sort of restaurant was private — sometimes very private. A few tables and a dozen chairs or so were set up in apartments or the back rooms of houses. They weren’t exactly illegal, but they weren’t necessarily licensed either. Unlike their state-owned counterparts, these restaurants were full of good cheer and slightly more expensive, which was a good thing: It meant that the menu reflected the prices of the private market in food, and not the controlled prices of the dysfunctional state economy, in which dingy state-run shops sold little more than vinegar, canned meat, and dry crackers. Every once in a while a queue would form for a shipment of sausage.
Even then, food was a sign of the eating revolution to come. The markets that supplied the private restaurants were seasonal, which meant piles and piles of sweet, delicious strawberries in early summer, ripe plums and yellow beans in late summer, and crisp apples, pumpkin, squash, and earthy potatoes in autumn. The vegetables were excellent — and naturally organic, because the farmers couldn’t afford pesticides. Alongside the local farmers, Russian traders came to the markets too, selling tins of beluga caviar for the equivalent of a few dollars. One of my friends knew a "veal lady" who delivered black-market meat as if it were contraband. And there were good free-range eggs to be found, if you knew whom to ask. Here was the foundation of a new capitalism — even before the Berlin Wall crumbled.
It was no accident that when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher arrived in Warsaw in the autumn of 1988 — dressed in a full-length fur coat and fur hat — she went grocery shopping. One of her former advisors recently told me that Thatcher said she wanted to visit a place where "the free market" was working, and the British ambassador to Poland pointed her to the Hala Mirowska, a dilapidated but still elegant 19th-century covered market. At that time, it was filled with country farmers selling their wares at "free prices." As startled shoppers stopped and stared, she swept through the fruit stalls, a crowd of television cameras behind her. The British ambassador scurried behind too, paying for her purchases and jars of pickles broken in the commotion.
Less than a year later, communism collapsed, and in its wake, Polish food began to change rapidly. In fact, the food culture probably changed even faster than the politics because the transformation was already happening: The economic collapse of the 1980s had produced a generation of food entrepreneurs who, by 1990, were delighted to come out of the shadows.
Just as in politics, the first phase of the transformation was chaotic. Bad cardboard pizza became available very quickly, as did lousy (and overpriced) "French" restaurants, most of which served overcooked meat in heavy sauces. McDonald’s appeared in 1992 and initially caused a sensation — people went just for the novelty. But as the economy grew, restaurants multiplied, the charm of the Golden Arches waned, and alternatives of all kinds began to appear. Home cooks had more options: Amateur makers of Polish jams, preserves, and relishes became professionals, acquiring marketing finesse and better packaging. Small farms and factories producing organic pork or game sausages began to flourish as well. At summer festivals and farmers’ markets, I wandered the stalls, filling my bag with thin dried sausages, wildflower honey, and beets preserved with horseradish.
With political stability came national self-confidence, and with that came a revival of Polish cooking on a national scale. Today, the most fashionable Warsaw and Krakow restaurants no longer serve bland foreign food with fancy names. Instead, there are robust pork and duck dishes, red cabbage, and wild mushrooms. They serve smalec, an old-fashioned peasant spread made of pork fat and eaten with rustic black bread. Trout, venison, and wild boar, all historically part of Polish cuisine, have reappeared on menus too. Pierogarnia — dumpling restaurants — make pierogi in every conceivable flavor, from spinach and feta to the traditional cheese and potatoes. And a new generation of creative chefs is busy reinventing other traditional Polish dishes, introducing such novelties as herring tartare and tiny, elegant cabbage rolls.
The opening of borders and the arrival of international trade have accelerated this process. Once-exotic ingredients — balsamic vinegar, truffle oil — are now used to spice up traditional dishes. Nonnative fruits and vegetables, from kiwis to cantaloupes, are now available everywhere. It turns out that arugula, unknown in Poland until the 1990s, grows beautifully in July and August; now it’s a ubiquitous ingredient on summer menus.
Critics of the Polish transformation like to speak of winners and losers, of social groups that have done better or worse, relative to one another, since 1990. But in the case of food, there’s only better. In fact, the biggest changes are often found at the lower end of the price scale. When one of my children was younger, his favorite meal was "gas station soup" — chicken broth served plain with noodles — that we used to get at a roadside cafe beside a petrol pump. Even now, one of my family’s favorite restaurants in Poland is a roadside karczma, or inn, that serves only a handful of dishes. One of them is zurek, a soup based on a stock made from sour bread, filled with white sausage and vegetables, and served in a hollowed-out loaf. Another is grilled pork filets with onions, on a skewer like a kebab, but eaten with pickles and grated beet salad.
Everything is simple and fresh, just what roadside food usually isn’t. No wonder truckers and tourists cram the parking lot all summer — and no wonder the state-owned restaurants have disappeared altogether.