Food with a Slice of History

Sugar Cookies

Image courtesy of Austin Ban on Unsplash

The Bulgarian communist production system had its own version of the 1970s sugar cookie. The sugar cookies of my childhood came in a clear plastic bag with blue and red letters in the Cyrillic alphabet, which said something about zoo animals.  I’m certain that there was a hippopotamus and a monkey, maybe even a giraffe and a kangaroo.  The rest of the animal shapes I don’t remember.  Despite being a fan of these cookies, I have no recollection of their taste.  I enjoyed holding them in my tiny hands and running my finger over their surface to feel the texture.  The animal shape was the sole effort to appeal to the consumer that the communist centrally planned production system made.  The cookies had a neutral scent and the pale color of slightly under-cooked dough didn’t tempt me.  My goal was to get hold of as many cookies as possible so that I could arrange them and keep them away from my brother, who was known to devour anything, regardless of its taste.

These sugar cookies were my first exposure to fantastic looking animals.  In my childish understanding of the world, hippopotamuses and monkeys existed only in under-cooked, scentless dough.  The zoo in Plovdiv, where my family lived, had about five animals locked up in tiny, filthy cages, whose stench I found extremely hard to withstand.  The animals were meant to represent Bulgaria’s fauna, whose plundering I had heard my grandfather bitterly lament. Whenever my father took me to visit these miserable creatures, I would hide my face in his coat, pull on the leg of his trousers, and beg for us to leave.  It sufficed for me to catch a glimpse of the wolf, who was frantically walking back and forth within the confines of his claustrophobic enclosure in obvious distress.  When this animal howled, the zoo keeper would appear  with keys dangling on a chain attached to his belt.  I was more scared of him rather than of the loud heart-wrenching sound, for in my mind, beyond a doubt, he had the power to put an end to the wolf’s hapless caged existence by setting him free.  However, he just pointed to the animal instead, explaining to the children standing by how good the wolf had it in secure captivity, when compared to having to protect itself from aggressors in the wilderness.

There were no animals resembling my sugar cookies either on the TV programs that I infrequently watched. The Bulgarian communist state used its monopoly over TV production and broadcasting for propaganda purposes.  Its shows mostly featured workers who joyously went about their daily routine in the socialist factories.  Places on the other side of the Iron Curtain were only shown to warn viewers of the militant nature of capitalist imperialism.  The message was clear:  you are happy and safe only in the communist motherland and have no business venturing outside its well-guarded boarders. Well-guarded these boarders surely were! One couldn’t leave the country without an exit visa issued by the Bulgarian state, which was extremely difficult to obtain.  A separate permit was required to even come within a certain distance of the boarder.  Thus, interesting-looking animals had no place on Bulgarian communist TV, for they could instill unwanted curiosity and desire to travel and see the world.

My parents used the sugar cookies in fantastic animal shapes as an incentive for me to participate in family events.  I remember hiding under the garden table of my grandfather’s family house in Koprivshtitsa, holding my breath along with a hippopotamus and a monkey in the moist palm of my hand, and being certain that no one suspected my whereabouts.  There was a plate full of animal-shaped cookies on the table, but I was too timid to venture out and get more of the fanciful creatures for my play.  Relatives and acquaintances had gathered for the memorial service of an aunt, whom I really didn’t know.  This was one of the rare occasions on which my grandfather was invited to his family home.

His father had bought the house probably in the early 1930s and run his business in the shop facing the street.  Upon his death, two of his sons had taken possession of the property and entered a never-ending dispute over its partition.  My grandfather was the oldest in a line of at least five other children.  It didn’t take much to sense that his relationship with his siblings was strained and he felt excluded from family affairs.  He shared with me very few stories about his childhood.  He believed that his mother had died giving birth to him.  He recalled one of his uncles standing by laughing, while he was crying because a piece of timber had hit him on the head.  When he was in his teens, his father took him to a boarding school in the city.  My grandfather was told that the tuition fees for the first semester were paid in full.  When this semester was over, he was on his own.  His father had five more mouths to feed and wanted to buy a house.  Judging by the house he bought, he couldn’t have been short on money.  It was spacious and situated right in the center of town, while my grandmother’s family house was much smaller and located on the outskirts.  It was obvious that my great grandfather had made a choice not to invest in his oldest son’s education, and my grandfather had been abandoned rather than left on his own out of necessity.

Despite the lack of family support and against his own expectations, my grandfather did well.  His grades were good enough for benefactors to pay for the rest of his schooling and he went on to attend university.  In the Fall of 1939, he defended his dissertation in Philosophy at the Phillips University of Marburg.  My grandfather received from his education what his family failed to give him. While his father had rejected him, he was accepted in a community of academics.  He talked often of the professors whose lectures he had heard and the people he had met at university.  His sense of self was rooted in the amount of reading and writing he had done in pursuit of his advanced Philosophy degree.  German was at the core of his academic identity and he treasured this language for all of the opportunities it had opened to him.  With its help, he had managed to forge close personal relationships, which he hadn’t experienced in his family.  One of the people whom my grandfather befriended during his studies in Germany was Eugen Gerstenmaier, who later became a resistance fighter and participated in the attempt to assassinate Hitler.

Shortly after Bulgaria was proclaimed a republic in 1944, the communist government showed little tolerance for the educated.  Intellectuals were persecuted, imprisoned, and even murdered in order to prevent them from criticizing the newly established social order.  My grandfather had to resign from his academic position in the city.  It was almost impossible for him to find any kind of work and he had to resort to teaching village children how to write cursive so that he could feed his family.  Once again, German helped him come to terms with the inauspicious circumstances in his life.

If one were to rely solely on the Bulgarian language in order to make sense of reality under communism, one could easily fall under the impression that one had lost one’s mind. When one turned on the news or opened the newspaper, one heard about the spectacular achievements of the centrally planned economy. However, a visit to the grocery store revealed empty shelves and long lines of common folks waiting for the delivery truck to arrive.  Communist ideology postulated that we were all equal but while the ordinary citizen considered toilet paper to be a luxury item, the communist elite enjoyed Swiss bank accounts, vacations on the Cote D’Azur, and costly goods from the West.  In their speeches, party leaders proclaimed that Bulgaria had become a republic, in order for its citizens to be emancipated from the totalitarian grip of the fascist bourgeoisie. Now that all comrades were free, they could develop their full potential.  However, people like my grandfather were not allowed to pursue their calling in life or even hold a decent job because they were educated, ideologically suspect, and refused to join the party to sing its praise.

To resist being brain-washed by communist propaganda, my grandfather listened furtively to the West German radio station Deutsche Welle on his transistor radio. The voice speaking German softly in his ear told him of a different world.  Thanks to it, my grandfather received reassurance that he had not lost his mind.  He didn’t go on a hunger strike or set himself on fire in front of the national assembly to protest the abuse of human rights in communist Bulgaria. He did imagine a different future though and did his best to prepare his children for it.  He made sure that my mother learned German and my uncle took advantage of an opportunity to pursue an advanced degree at the Technical University in Aachen (for more on this read here).  He also continued to write academic articles in German, which he eventually managed to publish in West Germany with my uncle’s help.

With the help of sugar cookies, my grandfather also contrived a plan to make me attend the German preschool on the other side of Plovdiv.  We had to walk for over half an hour to get to the preschool.  This is a long way when you are five and sixty-six, when temperatures are freezing, it is windy, and there is snow covering the ground.  Riding the bus was not an option because public transportation was not reliable.  On our way, we had to take the pedestrian wood bridge close to our house, in order to cross the river.  The snow was not cleared and we followed a narrow trail made by those who had passed before us.  We would both lose track of the times we slipped and fell, got up to walk a few steps further only to slip and fall again.  Slip. Fall.  Get up.  Walk.  Slip.  Fall again.  Walk further.  Fall again.  The crisp snow chafed my cheeks.  I wouldn’t have been able to feel my nose, if it weren’t dripping.  My grandfather would feel the freezing ground to look for his glasses.  He would shake the snow off, put them on again, adjust the beret hat on his head, take my hand, and walk further.  Once we had crossed the bridge and he could catch his breath, I heard him say, “When we get there, don’t act tongue-tied.  Say ‘Guten Tag,’ sing songs with the kids and your teacher, recite the poem we memorized at home, and when I come to pick you up, you’ll get sugar cookies in your favorite animal shapes.”  Once we were inside my preschool, I could hardly wait for him to take off my coat.  I slipped from underneath his hands and quickly hid under one of the tables.




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

1 Comment

  1. Sylvia

    This is so beautiful. I love the image of you and your grandfather persevering through the snow – he sounds like he knew a lot about resilience and not giving up. Wonderful!

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