Friday, January 22, 2010


My friend Magda has started a blog about her experience growing up during the last years of Communism in Poland, beginning with a chapter on food, so I thought I would offer this small addendum from my time as a foreign student and as a research fellow in Cracow in 1987 and 1989.

This is my last ration card from the final days of meat rationing in Poland in 1989. You would take this to the meat store, and the cashier would clip out the little blocks ("bloczki") for various quantities of meat, beef or veal with bones, or canned meat, corresponding to your order. Names for cuts of meat seemed mostly forgotten or were not in use except for the tenderloin, so most people in the meat line would point and ask for "this piece" or "that piece." Paper was also in short supply, so I remember once going home on the tram carrying a bleeding chicken in my hand with a small square of paper underneath it. No one thought this unusual. More experienced shoppers placed food that bled or dripped at the bottom of their net shopping bags that everyone carried at all times in case of a sudden opportunity to purchase some rare commodity.

As a student from the U.S. I was not particularly wealthy by Western standards, but the U.S. dollar had enormous buying power in Poland in 1989, where the average worker's salary converted to $35 per month in black market dollars (a value that was remarkably consistent in virtually all Communist countries worldwide at the time, according to one sociologist that I knew). That meant that I could afford to go to farmers' markets that offered better meat and didn't require bloczki, practice my language skills with the market women, and I gave away most of my ration cards to friends.

We also had these ration cards when I attended the summer language school in Cracow in 1987, and since our tuition was paid in foreign currency, meals were particularly lavish by the standards of Communist Poland, which meant that we were served way more meat than anyone really wanted. I don't think that most of us realized what a luxury this was, at least not until a few weeks into the program after we had eaten at the local milk bars, a few private homes, and maybe one or two of the better restaurants mainly for foreigners. While we were certainly sheltered from the worst effects of the regime in our dormitory, glimpses of the underlying reality would occasionally break through. Waitresses in the cafeteria brought out the food demanding, Bloczki proszę! ("Ration cards please!"), in the only tone in which such words were spoken, and they would clip whatever was needed for the day.

I was not overweight at the time, but I think I lost eight pounds that summer on a diet that included frankfurters for breakfast.


Anonymous said...

Wow, David, I haven't seen one of those in decades. It's a museum piece! Thanks for linking to my site...M

Family of Food said...

Very cool post, and great link.

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