Friday, July 2, 2010


We never had enough food to satisfy everyone. Often we went to bed hungry. We were skinny and malnourished. Even vitamins were unavailable - the communists rationed everything in order to make ends meet. They were selling everything of value that the country produced as fast as they could say, "sold." Even old oil reserves were gone - new ones were hard to explore as oil layered through hard rock at depths impossible to drill. Most food in high demand was exported to Germany and other western nations in exchange for technology and hard currency, usually the U.S. dollar. We were left with bones and empty shelves. I suppose bones were good for soup, our basic lunch and dinner staple. Bread was relatively cheap and we ate lots of it. Ceausescu, the insane communist president, wanted to industrialize the country as fast as possible, at the expense of the standard of living of most Romanians - the elite in charge was spared, they lived like kings. So what if we had to eat bones and wilted vegetables? It was for a good cause, the Utopian socialism. Never mind that everybody who tried this scientific socialism had failed miserably, we had to keep on trying, repeat the same mistakes until we got a different result - a formula for sheer lunacy.

I will never forget my shock when I entered an American grocery store for the first time - Horn's Big Star. I was amazed at the vast choices and availability of fruits and vegetables out of season and fresh. I did not have to fight other shoppers for the last bottle of milk, pat of butter, or loaf of bread. I did not have to get up at 4 a.m. to stand in line for a 7 a.m. opening of the store. I did not have to carry rationing coupons with me. Groceries were bagged and carried to my car with a smile. The owner was friendly all the time and offered to order items that were not stocked daily. Nobody fought over food, there were no empty shelves, ever, and people did not have to go hungry. Yet I could not fathom why people bemoaned their poverty and hunger, while visibly showing signs of obesity. It was a compliment to tell someone they looked good, they were fat. Fat meant that they had plenty to eat, no starvation. Fat people were considered well off. The "evil" corporations took advantage of Americans, oh, my. I believed them to be spoiled, bratty adults, tired of overabundance and self-indulgence, having everything handed to them, while making more and more impossible and outlandish demands.

I don't look at food the same way Americans do. I know the toil behind a cluster of ripe grapes, the sweat behind a fragrant apple, and the backache behind a perfect strawberry just picked off the vine. Food is not a pleasure to be cherished socially in a fine restaurant, or with friends and family, it is instead sustenance and survival. Americans tend to overeat because food is so bountiful and cheap. We spend only 15% of income on food. Romanians and other poor nations spend a much larger portion of their incomes for daily staples of simple food. I never look at an orange or banana the same way my husband does. He sees a fruit that is either overripe or too green, something mundane that can be bought in the grocery store on any given day. I see perfection, a real treat, something eaten on special occasions. The scent of an orange brings memories of Christmas, the Christmas tree candles casting shadows on a solitaire orange hanging from its boughs with a red ribbon, and the smell of fresh spruce.

My favorite snack was roasted sunflower seeds, they were cheap and plentiful. The only problem was that the purveyors of such fine foods were the gypsies. Mom was horrified because they roasted their seeds in the same aluminum tubs that they washed clothes in and tripled as chamberpots. She invented the most outlandish stories to discourage me from running to the gypsies with every last nickle and dime I had to purchase sunflower seeds. They were cleverly wrapped in rolled newspapers. There was no such thing as packaging or plastic bags in stores, people had to improvise. Even the farmer's market in summer time used rolled newspapers in the shape of a cone as wrapping. Newspapers were magical, we used them for toilette paper, napkins, wrapping paper, bathroom reading material, to clean windows (the ink shined them better than Windex), blankets on grass, head cover from light rain, origami hat to shade from the sun, protective cover for books, and to shine shoes.

Food was cooked simply with sunflower or rape seed oil. Rape seed oil was more plentiful - there were fields of yellow flowers as far as the eye could see. The oil was heavier and thicker than sunflower oil. We either fried or boiled our food. Baking was rare, usually at Easter and Christmas. We ate lots of soup made from various green leaves in summer time, tomatoes, Feta cheese, cucumbers, green beans, cabbage, green peppers, lettuce, and green peas. We sliced them up and ate them raw with bread. We did not have salad dressing or mayo. Preparing mayo at home for potato salad was very time consuming and required a lot of elbow grease. We did not have mixers. Mom was a master at cooking a three course meal from one chicken. This happened once every ten days. We had chicken soup, chicken and rice, and fried chicken, all from one live chicken purchased at the farmer's market. Dad had the unpleasant task of having to cut the chicken's head off out in the yard. Mom had to dip it into boiling water to be able to pluck the feathers. To this day, I can smell the peculiar aroma of dipped feathers in hot water, it would make me gag every time. I used to hide because I did not want to see the poor chicken hopping around in the yard headless. I knew we had to eat protein to survive but I disliked the way in which the chicken was slaughtered and could not stand the smell of plucking. Had we had peanut butter and soy beans, I would have made a conscious decision to avoid eating chicken. It was cruel to kill them this way. We ate more pork in winter time since they were slaughtered around Christmas. Beef was not part of our diet since it was usually very tough - they waited for the cow to be on her deathbed before they drove it to slaughter, it was too valuable alive for milk, butter, and cheese. We ate fried fish and sardines a lot, usually fried whole with bones in and heads, and, shock, whale meat. We bought blocks of whale meat imported from Japan. The process of killing such a magnificent and relatively rare animal had not occurred to me at the time. Grandpa's favorite food was tripe soup. Tripe was the lining of the cow's stomach and it looked and tasted rather rubbery. Lots of people considered brains a delicacy. I am proud to say that I never touched this unnecessary risk to one's health. My dad liked fried livers - I found them disgusting, along with all the organs associated with the chicken or the cow.

During Lent, mom and I would make eight-shaped sweet dumplings with walnut pieces. It was an orthodox tradition. I asked her why in the shape of an eight, but she did not know, it was tradition. During funerals, the older women would make a wheat/barley seed sweet concoction that would be given to the poor in memory of the deceased. Since we were all poor, everybody ate "coliva."

Grandma Elena's cure for everything was chicken soup and fried liver. The thought of fried liver turns my stomach even today. My comfort food was boiled potatoes and french fries. As a toddler, I learned that grandma boiled potatoes for the pig and I raided his trough frequently to my grandma's desperation.

Sweets and sugary foods were rare, consequently few people were obese or suffered from diabetes. Summer time was fruit and watermelon heaven. If we could not buy it at the farmer's market, we went to Mamaia's house - there was always an endless supply of fruits in season that could be picked. And, if she did not have it, there were the neighbor's. Taking food was not considered stealing as the villagers, with their meager resources, were very generous. I climbed prune trees, peach trees, apple and pear trees, and anything else that was edible. Grandpa Ilie's venerable old walnut tree was off limits - it had been planted by his grandfather. There was a tree not far from the outhouse that produced a yellow berry, the size of a raspberry. We climbed that tall tree many times for juicy berries, with total disregard for the proximity to the outhouse. Why would we care? We were kids and ate anything that tasted good and we never washed them.

We only got in trouble when picking radiant red poppies in a wheat field that belonged to the communist co-operative and the watchman chased us with an ax. I still remember the sheer terror of impending death by decapitation with an ax when I see red poppies. He was so angry, perhaps the poppies were his opium stash and we stumbled upon it accidentally. I can still smell the pungent odor of the stems.

My American born children were very wasteful with their food. When they were very young, we took regular trips to Pizza Hut. Half of the pizza was usually squandered after they were full. I scolded them that some Chinese children were starving and they should learn to order only what they could consume. With a cocky attitude, my girls offered to mail them to China or challenged me to name a few Chinese starving at that moment. The wastefulness was lost on them.

We never knew what eating out meant. Fancy restaurants were off-limits for the unwashed masses and fast food restaurants did not exist. Nobody fed us breakfast and lunches at school. The government could not care less if we went hungry, had money to buy food, or had time and energy to stand in lines in sub-zero temperatures for hours. We ate better and stuffed ourselves at weddings, baptisms, and funerals. Easter and Christmas were also occasions of good eating and over stuffing. Going on a picnic was reserved for party elites who revelled in their new-found power to grab the best accommodations for themselves and their families.

I can only remember a couple of occasions when I ate out - at lake Snagov with Manescu and his wife - he had money and power none of us could even dream of. Both were very influential in the communist party. The second time I dined in decadent luxury was at my wedding, in the restaurant rented by my father.

There was no such thing as spending the night at the house of a friend or pajama parties. First of all, pajamas were hard to find. Secondly, parties were considered bourgeois, unless you were part of the ruling elite. Nobody in his/her right mind would be willing to feed half a dozen kids at an overnight party when food was hard to procure and families could barely afford to feed themselves.

Nobody kidnapped kids because they were too expensive to feed. You could let them walk to school alone, take the bus, and they always came back. Besides, with all the levels of police tripping over themselves everywhere, nobody dared to do anything illegal or stupid that would land them in jail, doing hard time in a real gulag, not some Club Med on steroids.

Nobody had birthday parties or birthday cakes. It was a luxury reserved for those in power. Occasionally, my dad would take us for our Sunday promenade and feed us cake at the bakery on the boulevard. I always felt special, daddy's little girl, because dad sacrificed his allowance to buy me a decadent piece of velvety chocolate cake. It was the ultimate luxury for me. There was ice cream in the bakery as well, but it was a rare treat. The ultimate luxury was Profiterole, an ice cream and cake concoction that only the French could make so divine.

Few people owned a refrigerator and if they did, it was very small. It was thus necessary to buy food every day. Mom, dad, and I took turns shopping, but it was mostly mom's duty and mine. We purchased vegetables in summer time at the farmer's market and had to be quite choosy as our food budget was limited. The state had green groceries but the shelves were mostly empty. Some had a few wilted leaves of spinach or potatoes with worms poking out of holes. The Colorado beetle loved potatoes! I did not know where Colorado was, but I was positive it was infested with bugs since this fast-multiplying pest had hitched a ride so many thousands of miles away, arriving in Romania on a plane and devouring our precious food.

In winter time it was more difficult to find vegetables. There were some canned fruits and vegetables, quite expensive and often inedible as cans and jars were poorly sealed. Meat was plentiful as it was easier to preserve by curing with salt or curing with lard. My grandparents had a basement that had a constant low temperature and they stored some fruits and cured meat and salty, smoked fish.

Why did we shop every day for food? Was it because we liked fresh more? Was it because we had no refrigeration? Was it because we had no cars and could only carry a day's supply of food with two armloads?

My love for bread formed when I was six years old and mom sent me to the store with three lei wadded in my sweaty palm to buy French bread. I loved French bread, and, if I was lucky, it would still be warm from the oven. I would eat half the crust by the time I made it home. It was worth the spanking I got every time for ruining the loaf for everybody else. Wheat bread was round and less expensive - we had no idea that the fiber was stripped from the white bread. We thought the communists were lucky because they could buy French bread any time they wanted while we had to eat darker bread which was harder to chew.

Grandpa spoiled me twice a year with a chocolate bar filled with raisins. Raisins - it was heaven. They were hard to come by - grapes were turned into wine, it was much more profitable than raisins. Besides, all the winos paid heavy taxes for their drinking curse.

Every family owned a couple of seltzer bottles made of heavy gauge green or blue glass. A refill center would pressurize gas and water into this bottle for a small fee. In Roman style, wine and seltzer were mixed half and half to make the wine last longer. Although a wire mesh was cupping the seltzer bottle while being filled with water and CO2, accidents happened and people would be decapitated or maimed. I thought it a heavy price to pay for some one's addiction to drinking. Children would mix seltzer water with syrup and have an instant soda. There was no such thing as Coke or Pepsi. They were introduced on the market in Romania in the early 1980s but only the privileged few had access to buy it.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Dr. Johnson. Your entries are eye-opening and intelligently written. I can't wait to read more!

    Arianna, your former Latin student

  2. Thank you, Arianna, I wrote my stories for my former students and for young people who may have a better understanding, not a romanticized Hollywood view of communism.