Food with a Slice of History

Mon Chéri

Hollyhocks flowers in a garden

Image courtesy of Stella de Smit on Unsplash

A Mon Chéri was my first bite of capitalism.  I couldn’t have been older than five.  Unease gripped my throat as soon as I bit into the crisp, thin chocolate exterior and liqueur ran down my chin.  Just a second later, a sticky wave of panic washed over me: my top would stain, and my grandfather would yell at me back home.  My clumsy fingers quickly shove the rest of the praline into my mouth.  I stole an anxious glance at my grandmother’s stained dress but the alcohol got to my head and within seconds, I felt slightly elated.  The neat, white curtains couldn’t stop me from glancing through the window.  The hollyhock blossoms out in the garden on the other side nodded conspiratorially at me.  Their vibrant colors looked even more radiant and tempting.

My initiation into Mon Chéri, capitalist pralines infused with liqueur, took place at the house of an Eastern Orthodox priest.  My grandmother had taken me on a social call to Otez Nenko’s cottage at the heart of Koprivshtitsa.  He lived with his sister whose daughter was married in West Germany to a doctor from the Middle East.  Receiving a permit from the Bulgarian communist state to join her husband in the West couldn’t have been easy.  However, marriage to a foreign national was one of the somewhat legitimate ways in which a Bulgarian was granted a permit to reside on the other side of the Iron Curtain.  Unlike my uncle, “the traitor to the motherland,” Otez Nenko’s niece could visit her family in Bulgaria and even bring them goods from the West.  One could only guess what the Bulgarian Secret Service expected from her in return: information about the “imperialist enemy” and reports on the political views of other Bulgarians living in the West.

Otez Nenko’s cottage was full of things that weren’t to be found in an ordinary Bulgarian home: boxes of Mon Chéri; crisp, white curtains blocking my view of the hollyhocks outside; a shiny gold gilded clock, whose pendulum rotated instead of swinging from side to side; a water heater in the spotless bathroom and a fridge in  the kitchen.  His sister received from her daughter garden seeds.  She had the most ravishing flowers I had ever seen.  Her hollyhocks were the dream flower of my childhood.  I was eager to stop by the cottage just to admire them.  In my dreams, I came really close to them, opened my mouth and bit into the bright blossoms.  They tasted of no-one-is-to-tell-me-what-to-do.  I watched with pleasure my dress stain with their luminous colors.

The Otez and his sister must have suspected my fantasy because they never allowed me into their garden.  The spotless curtains were drawn as soon as I sat at the table next to the window.  Slices of bread with Nutella and butter appeared in front of me.  Once I was gone, the white fabric was stained with tiny brownish fingerprints. There was nothing I wished more than to putter among the Otez’s hollyhocks.

The visits to Otez Nenko’s cottage were part of a ritual my grandmother and I shared in my early childhood.  My grandmother was a flâneuse, who taught me the art of leisurely ambling through the cobbled streets of Koprivshtitsa as soon as I could toddle along.  In the early afternoon, after she had served the family meal, we took to the sleepy streets of Bulgaria’s museum town in the mountains.

Beforehand, my grandmother wouldn’t even bother to change into a neat, fresh dress.  She went out in whatever she had worn while cooking in the morning.  My mother was embarrassed that my grandmother didn’t put much effort into her appearance.  She was ashamed that her mother smelled of cooked food and her dress attested to spilled soups and stews.  My grandfather didn’t approve of this either.  He insisted that my uncle find ways to send his mother dresses and shoes from West Germany.  Back in Plovdiv, about twice a year, my grandmother consented to wear these on the rare occasions when my grandfather would go with her on a stroll in the center of town.  Then she demurely trod on the side of her husband, the professor, in her new, stiff clothes, which seemed to chop and restrain her movements.  This was what she had to do so that he could live, at least briefly, like the person he so badly wished to be.  After all, he had the education of a professor, even if the communist bureaucracy found his advanced German degree ideologically suspect and didn’t allow him to hold an academic position.

In Koprivshtitsa, however, no one was to tell my grandmother what to wear.  She showed no concern for what her husband and daughter held of her looks.  After all, during her walks through the museum town in the mountains, she, as a flâneuse, did things neither one of them would do.

Koprivshtitsa’s past had been a glorious one.  During the Bulgarian National Revival period, the town had been a center of flourishing crafts, culture and education, which fostered an awakened national consciousness. Koprivshtitsa was known as the birthplace of important men: the poet Dimcho Debelyanov, writer Lyuben Karavelov and educator Nayden Gerov, along with the revolutionaries Todor Kableshkov and Georgi Benkovski. The latter had fought for Bulgaria’s independence from the Ottoman Empire.  Koprivshtitsa had sparked off the Bulgarian 1876 uprising against the Ottoman Turks, a fact that the communist propaganda exploited to promote hostile feelings against neighboring NATO Turkey.

In the summers of my childhood, crowds of Bulgarian and even some foreign tourists flooded the historical section of this museum town to admire the birth houses of great Bulgarian men.  The tourists delighted in the craftsmanship of historical homes — elaborately carved ceiling, rich felt carpets, decorative fabrics and vibrant murals.  My grandfather and mother had taken me to visit the museums.  However, my grandmother was not interested in mingling with the crowds and marveling at the shrines of great men.  Her interest was rather in the common and everyday.

My grandmother cared for the insignificant drama that made up the texture of people’s lives.  She attentively observed the little changes that occurred as human existence slowly unfolded.  On a hot summer afternoon, she and I puttered along the streets, taking in all the details: open windows, uneven garden beds, items on the clotheslines, peeps of chicks and rafts of ducks, food scraps that fed puppies and kittens.  My grandmother also caught whiffs of cooked food. Who cooked what was of vital interest to her.  She read a house like an open book telling the story of who stayed in it and who tended to it.  She peeped over fences, sneaked glances through the cracks of barely opened doors, peeked into gaps between the beams of massive, wooden gates and looked into gardens whose entryways negligence had left invitingly exposed.

In Plovdiv, my grandmother had to be discreet.  She pretended not to hear the angry exchanges between my grandfather and father and the accusations my parents threw at each other.  However, in Koprivshtitsa, she didn’t have to rein back her interest in other people’s lives.  I would hear her say, “It’s useless to go to the movies to see drama.  It’s way better to listen to the stories people share out of their own free will.”

During our loafing around town, inevitably gates and doors opened and my grandmother was welcomed to sit down in the shade of a yard.  The lady of the house would lay a table with special treats: fruits and vegetables from her own garden, home-made jam and yogurt, freshly baked goods.  In the context of food shortages during Bulgaria’s communist years, such hospitality was not to be taken for granted.  In such moments, my grandmother said mostly to herself, “I don’t really want to eat anything. I just want a bite to see whether it’s fresh.”  And fresh everything surely was, for hardly anyone thought of offering my grandmother stale food.  Then my grandmother listened to whatever her hostess had to share. As it turned out, drama rarely ran short, for  behind the museum town’s artisan façades, family crises abounded.

The conversation oftentimes centered on disputes with family over property.  There were lots of family houses in Koprivshtitsta that the heirs wanted to divide among themselves.  Inevitably, there were disagreements and a solution in court had to be sought.  However, in a communist country like Bulgaria where official policies discouraged private property, the courts were ill suited to defend the possessions of common folks.  Heirs still had to share stairs, corridors, kitchens and bathrooms in order to access the spaces that the court had determined to be solely in their possession.  This gave them little privacy and demanded of them that they ran into their relatives, who were now their adversaries, on a daily basis.  Such encounters led to new confrontations in which the parties sought to vent their frustration by throwing unpleasantries and insults at each other.  Matters got from bad to worse with new “solutions” sought in court that aggravated things even further.

My grandmother was always open for a conversation, in which she spent most of the time listening to what other women had to say.  She could well understand a situation in which a family shared a house under less than perfect circumstances.  After all, her own paternal family home in Plovdiv was divided between hers and her daughter’s family.  Even though there had been no lawsuits, for a decision had been reached in apparent peace with a seeming agreement between all parties, disputes were both frequent and plenty.  It was an unfortunate situation with my father and grandfather being in an on-going conflict over who was more erudite, who should be the patriarch in the family and who should tell the women in the house what to do.  However, my grandmother wasn’t interested in venting her own woes and frustrations.  What was more important to her was that she could sit down at someone’s table and feel respected and appreciated.

She was a cherished guest at Otez Nenko’s cottage for sure.  Ironically, the treats she was served there were far from fresh.  Mon Chéri, the pralines reserved especially for her, were not available in West Germany between the months of May and September.  Whatever my grandmother was offered had been stored in the fridge for at least a few months.  Her sensitive palate must have noticed this but she didn’t seem to care.  My grandmother was much more interested in the stories about daily life in West Germany that the Otez and his sister shared with her.  They helped her feel closer to the son whom she believed to have lost.  Because my uncle had left Bulgaria without the permission of the communist state, he was a “traitor to the motherland.”  He no longer had a Bulgarian citizenship and couldn’t visit his parents without risking imprisonment or even death.  My grandmother was hungry for every small detail about life in the country where her son lived. For her, Otez Nenko’s house, the last stop on her walk through Koprivshtitsa as a flâneuse, was as close as she could get to roaming the West.

My grandfather disliked the Otez and mistrusted him.  He wanted to know from me whenever my grandmother had visited the cottage and openly expressed his disapproval.  His official objection against the Otez was that he had divorced his wife, which my grandfather didn’t consider ethical for a priest.  When I had barely been a year old, my grandfather had trusted in Otez Nenko to baptize me.  The communist state banished religious practices.  People didn’t dare follow religious rituals or observe religious holidays for fear of persecution.  However, no one was to tell my grandfather what to believe in.

Experience had taught my grandfather that a friend of yesterday might not be a confidant of tomorrow.  Only my grandmother was as naive as to have faith in people.  Her husband disliked that Otez Nenko showed up every so often unannounced at our house asking my grandfather to write birthday cards to his sister’s grandchildren in West Germany.  Taken by surprise, my grandfather hurriedly turned off his transistor radio, on which he secretly listened to the West German station Deutsche Welle in the kitchen, and scurried to meet the Otez out in the yard.  To whom else did the Otez talk after his visits to our house?  What kind of information did he pass on about my grandfather and our household?

My grandmother continued to visit Otez Nenko’s cottage on her adventures as a flâneuse in spite of my grandfather’s fervent objections.  In Koprivshtitsa, no one was to tell her whom to visit.  In the late 70s, my grandfather received an official permission from the Bulgarian communist authorities to visit his son in West Germany.  He finally had the freedom to do what he had so badly wanted: not just cross the Iron Curtain but also return to the country of his graduate studies.  The conditions of his travel permit included one small detail: he was to help the Bulgarian Secret Service with information that could facilitate their study of the capitalist West.  Upon his return from visiting his son, my grandfather went for a walk along the river in Plovdiv with an officer of the Secret Service.  The officer set the direction.  Perhaps my grandfather even brought him a box of Mon Chéri


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Bulgarian Mineral Water

1 Comment

  1. Ailsa

    Delighted to be reminded of my childhood memories of some exceptional foods tasting of “no one can stop me enjoying this now!”. The delicious mystery of the unfamiliar and disapproved!

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