Food with a Slice of History

Sen Sens

A hand of a child drawing a hopscotch outline

Image courtesy of Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Sen Sens were tiny pieces of hard candy in a square shape.  The candy was packed in a paper packet that was as small as a little box of matches.  Upon shaking the packet, the pieces made a rustling sound, which I found captivating.  The name Sen Sens had me mesmerized.  It brought to mind the silly nonsense rhymes which girls recited in the street while jumping rope or playing hopscotch.  At home in Plovdiv, perched on the windowsill of my bedroom, I often watched the neighborhood kids capering and frolicking around, engrossed in their games.  What they did looked like fun.  I tried to imitate their movements, prancing around my bedroom and fantasizing about Sen Sens’ creator.  Was she an employee at the Institute for Food and Beverage, where my mother taught German? 

The institute’s mission was to invent new products for the Bulgarian communist food market.  A lot of this involved coming up with cheap substitutes for items that were in deficit, such as meat.  For example, recipes for sausages were concocted with soy and other beans instead of animal ingredients.  The Bulgarian socialist consumer had a taste of vegetarian and even vegan diets way before they became popular health and ethical alternatives in the West.  This was not by choice, of course.  The second piece on the institute’s agenda was to come up with imitations of Western products, or in other words, food items that satisfied the cravings of the socialist masses minus the ideological corruption of decadent capitalism.  Altai, a poor version of Coca Cola, was one of these.  It is telling that the communist elite enjoyed  the original products  delivered directly to their door, all in secret.

Sen Sens were probably meant to be the communist version of Tic Tacs.  I imagined their creator as a food scientist, bent over a microscope in a bare, sterile laboratory at the Institute for Food and Beverage.  I was sure she was timid and shy.  At lunch time, she undoubtedly sat at a table in the employee canteen all by herself, reading a book, perhaps of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, while trying to eat a soy sausage.  Each mouthful stuck in her throat and made her gag.

Sen Sens were smaller than Tic Tacs and not as fragrant.  Tic Tacs were probably scrumptious, while Sen Sens’ gourmet qualities were nonexistent.  Their mint flavoring was not only cheap but also fake.  The name made it clear that Sen Sens were strictly meant for girls.  No boy, hiding in the dark corners of a courtyard in a game of partisans, would risk ridicule by showing interest in the tiny pieces of hard candy.  When I had Sen Sens, I was in heaven. My grandparents, well aware of this fact of life, made sure I had Sen Sens once a day in the summers at my grandmother’s family home in Koprivshtitsa.  However, other things had to happen first, before I got my Sen Sens.

I had to drink down my cup of raw milk, which was no easy affair.  To procure the milk, my grandmother would get up before daybreak and hurry over to the barn of her acquaintance before the cow had left for the pastures.  Then she would stop by the market where the peasants had barely had a chance to unload their carts at the crack of dawn.  Next was getting in line at the state-owned grocery store to buy cheese, meat, butter, and bread.  Our 150-year-old house didn’t have a fridge, which made it impossible to stock supplies.  My grandmother had to do the shopping every morning.  When she finally dragged home the heavy shopping bags, all the way on foot of course, it was mid morning.  We all had had breakfast and my brother would leave to join his friends in their games.  Writing this, I wonder when my grandmother had the time to eat any food herself.  She must have bolted down the stale end of a loaf of bread with some leftover cheese, while unpacking the groceries that she had hauled home.  Then my grandmother would start preparing the family’s main meal in the kitchen and it was time for me to play.

Unlike my brother, I was not allowed to seek out friends outside the house. Thus, I had no playmates with whom I could frolic around.  I would sit on the grass in the yard, surrounded by a tall, stone fence blocking my view of the street, and focus on the grasshoppers.  I set up house for them with beds out of fresh smelling grass.  I cooked them lavish meals, redolent of tender, wild herbs.  I served them tea and cake laced with sweet clover blossoms.  I chatted with them about the news my grandfather had heard on Deutsche Welle, and warned them against the dangers of sparrows flying low, whose vigilant eyes helped them snatch innocent, unsuspecting insects.

In the meantime, my grandmother would be done with the cooking and probably reading a classic French novel, perhaps a Hugo, Flaubert, Zola or Maupassant.  As a young woman, she had attended a French lycée but left before graduating.  The reasons for this were not really clear.  Her father had died unexpectedly and financial difficulties were a likely explanation.  My grandfather’s commentary on the topic ran something like, “Your grandmother  didn’t know how to persist.  Her mother bent over backwards to buy her piano lessons but your grandmother wasn’t interested.  Same thing with the lycée.  She didn’t want to sweat it and graduate.” (You can read more about my grandfather here.) My grandmother would merely shrug her shoulders and say, “Let the past be, for it cannot be changed.” 

When the Hugo, Flaubert, Zola or Maupassant were closed, I knew it was time for Sen Sens and the heavy wooden gate would open to let my grandmother and me out onto the street.  I knew the way well and, before long, I was leaping from cobble stone to cobble stone, reciting nonsense rhymes.  While I was bouncing and jumping like a grasshopper, I imagined I was flying high where no hungry sparrow could snatch me.  Trying to keep up with me, my grandmother would beg me to slow down, for she was tired and her legs were hurting, but I wouldn’t listen.  In no time we passed by the church where, barely a year old, I was secretly baptized.  (The communist state forbade its citizens to follow religious practices.)  We turned the corner, came upon the left river bank and, a couple of minutes later, reached the bakery where one could buy Sen Sens.  The unappealing packets of candy were the only thing left after the lines of customers had hungrily grabbed for the bread and whatever else was delivered earlier in the day.  I had no illusions about the value of my coveted sweets, for no one lined up to buy them.  At that moment, my grandmother had caught up with me.  I pressed the coin that appeared out of her tattered purse onto the counter and pointed at one of the packets.  On the way back home, now walking slowly, I could overhear my grandmother muttering under her breath, “Would you even recall who your grandmother was, once I am no longer alive?”


Reading Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking




  1. Sylvia

    This is gorgeous, Penwhisk! So evocative of childhood desires; your memories seem to grow more enriched and treasured as you consider them from an adult perspective…wonderful. I hope your grandmother did understand later how much she meant to you.

  2. Aubrey Preston

    What a treasure your grandmother was! Although many people tend to describe their experience living under communist control in grays and browns, your perspective is so colorful. It is truly a pleasure to be a reader of your work!

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