Resistance through Recipes: reviewing Rebellious Cooks and Recipe Writing in Communist Bulgaria by Albena Shkodrova6 min read

 In Eastern Europe, Review, Reviews
I have reviewed a variety of cookbooks including Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore by Darra Goldstein and The Jewish Cookbook by Leah Koenig, but I have never reviewed a book about a cookbook. It was certainly difficult reading about all these delicious recipes without instructions on how to recreate them. However, I managed to get through this interesting monograph about recipe making and collecting in Communist Bulgaria without getting too hungry.

Albena Shkodrova is a Researcher at the Institute for Social Movements in Bochum, Germany, and the author of many books about cooking during communism, with a focus on Bulgaria. A point that Shkodrova made clear again and again was that Bulgarian women under communism were never coerced to cook. They choose these societal and gender paths. Noticing this helps contemporary readers understand the innate feminism in the act of cooking and serving one’s family. 

Shkodrova’s work follows the same philosophy of interpreting everyday actions within restrictive ideologies as micro-resistance. Postcolonial theorists make the distinction between coping and resistance and this meta-discourse can be used to examine both cooking and keeping cookbooks. I really enjoyed that aspect of Rebellious Cooks because who doesn’t like to feel like a rebel when they’re in their own kitchen?

Cafeterias under Communism

While they were not forced to cook, communism did take women out of their households to employ them in the state economy. Shkodrova interprets that cooking at home, for pleasure, and for fun was an act of protest against the changing society because of the many ways the state carefully constructed social order both inside and outside of home.

Between 1947 and 1986, the number of canteens in communist Bulgaria tripled with over 6,500 across the region. The state installed canteens everywhere, from economic enterprises, institutes, schools, universities, hospitals, state institutions, to agricultural cooperatives in hopes of freeing people from chores like purchasing products for cooking and washing. The plan was to have 90% of workers and 70% of students relying on canteens for daily nutrition by the 1990s, though numerous surveys in the ’60s and ’70s show that less than ten percent of the population at any given time relied on, much less enjoyed eating at a canteen. 

Regardless of many of the top-down actions to shape home life, women continued to cook. They continued to take pride in beautifying their homes. They continued to entertain, share recipes, and take pride in their food. In many of the interviews that Shkodrova shares throughout the book, women fondly remembered beautiful meals they made and great meals they participated in with fondness and nostalgia that transcends even decades and ideology.

Professionally Printed Cookbooks

During this time in Bulgaria, there were centrally produced cookbooks with the aim of professionalizing home cooking. Discussions of bowel rhythm and digestive glands, along with good hygiene and kitchen cleanliness were commonplace in these guides. Food was treated as a biological necessity, with emphasis on researched ingredients and nutrients. However, few of the women in Shkodrova’s studies owned more than two professional cookbooks, if at all.

The research Shkodrova conducted on numerous women and households for this book showed that more often than not, shortages made ingredients unavailable. The instructions found in professionally-printed cookbooks were too difficult. Cookbooks often are created for readers with at least minimal cooking knowledge; women who had to learn the basics of cooking still relied on family members and friends to learn.

Women at this time relied mostly on self-made scrapbooks containing recipes they had handwritten or pasted from other sources. Women shared recipes often through friendship, to establish kinship, to set oneself up in a better societal or job position, or even as a necessity. 

Recipe Scrapbooks

The scrapbooks that Shkodrova found in the homes of Bulgarian women take every form. Some are notebooks, some are mere piles of papers. Some had clippings that came from Western magazines. Some contained color clippings from after 1989 when color printing became the norm in Bulgaria. Some contained recipes from leaflets and could be easily identifiable as before or after 1944, as Bulgaria underwent transliteration reform that was reflected in all print materials. However, the majority of text in a scrapbook was handwritten or hand-drawn. 

One reason why handwritten and hand-drawn recipes were preferred can be seen in the example of banitsa, one of the most commonly made breads in Bulgaria. 

What scrapbooks cannot say

Homemade bread played a central role in 19th-century Bulgarian food. Even in the professional cookbooks, recipes for banitsa took a sizable portion of each volume. In the professional cookbooks, banitsa recipes often lacked information on how thick or what shape the filo sheets should take. They often did not contain information about oven temperature or for how long it should be baked. Drawings helped many cooks, often made while observing another cook or transcribing the “expert’s” words.

Shkodrova writes, “putting filo sheets for banitsa or preparing ‘bathed’ or ‘beaten’ bread required not only mixing ingredients with exact proportions, but the application of very specific techniques and skills, they could be learned more easily through demonstration than through written explanations – especially when the illustrations were scarce and showed mainly the ready-made dish and not the preparation process.”

As historians, we can read these handmade scrapbooks, but often their stories tell more than what is on paper. Even so, older women who lived through communism may have selective memory or reinvent narratives, which is typical of how most humans interact with the past.

Recipe gathering

Women shared recipes in a variety of settings. “Recipes in scrapbooks were collected through active listening, tasting, and trying out. The exchange of recipes was mostly accompanied by a detailed explanation of the method details and personal recommendations These verbal instructions were an essential part of the appropriation of a recipe.” Women often write down their mistakes or circled things they had missed in previous blunders. In some of the interviews, women recalled cooking mishaps with humor. 

When women exchanged recipes, there was also a degree of home-measuring. Another reason the women in Shkodrova’s study did not like professional cookbooks was that the recipes would give quantities in grams. Traditional cooking does not use exact measurements and women had their own ways to measure proportions. As Shkodrova looked through scrapbooks, it was common to see “one handful of…” or “a spoonful of…” for measurement. This method worked most of the time, but for more delicate dishes, could be “endangered by miscalculation of a few grams.”

Resourcefulness in the kitchen

“Each time they engaged in a transfer not only of recipes, but of know-how, of cooking skills, expertise, experiences, which were not available in written sources, or probably at least not available without expending a more than reasonable amount of effort to search it out and understand it.” Women were resourceful in all the ways they collected and maintained their own scrapbooks. These skills often go unrecognized for years, until an amazing woman scholar like Albena Shkodrova decides to highlight the selfless accomplishments. 

Rebellious Cooks and Recipe Writing is a must-read for any food aficionado. Modern-day homecooks come from an even longer lineage of homecooks who cooked in secret, against the state’s wishes, and as an act of rebellion. I’ll certainly remember that next time I take a bite out of banitsa.

Book details: Shkodrova, Albena. Rebellious Cooks and Recipe Writing in Communist Bulgaria, 2021. Bloomsbury. It is available to buy here

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