The cultural significance of milk bars in Poland8 min read

 In Blog, Central Europe, Culture
A search for a short summer trip and a desire for culture led me to Poland where I stumbled upon an intriguing term: milk bar. These government-funded cafeterias, known as “bar mleczny,” not only serve traditional Polish cuisine at low prices but also have a history that continues to shape Poland’s society and its cultural imagination to the present day.

After experiencing them myself and researching their history, a thought-provoking portrayal of these establishments appeared. Originating before the era of communism but flourishing during that time, milk bars have transitioned from relics of a despised past to beloved cultural places cherished by locals and tourists alike, becoming windows into Polish national identity and cultural heritage.

From a local farmer to a socialist enterprise

The origins of the milk can be traced back to the late 19th century. In 1896, the local farmer Stanisław Dłużewski established the first milk bar in Warsaw, laying the foundation for the history of milk bars. During the 20th century, milk bars spread around the country and gained momentum after World War I, solidifying their significance in the post-World War II era. 

In the post-war years, characterised by harsh economic conditions, the communist Polish People’s Republic’s government prioritised economic development through collective farming and cooperatives. The essence of the milk bars was seamlessly aligned with socialist ideals, blending affordability with communal values and providing lunches for the working class.

Inside milk bars and their menu

Preserving the classic recipes unchanged since the 20th century within milk bars is paramount for maintaining Poland’s cultural heritage. The famous pierogi is the star of any milk bar, coming stuffed with potatoes, cheese, meat, sauerkraut, or mushrooms. Alternatively, those with a sweet tooth can try pierogi with strawberries, blueberries, and apples. In addition, milk bars serve soups; a popular option is Żurek, a sour rye soup loaded with rich flavours of smoked meat and eggs. Meat lovers can choose dishes such as kotlet, complemented by sides of potatoes and generous portions of salads, or the comforting stew called “bigos”, consisting of sauerkraut and a blend of meat and mushrooms. 

The meals typically cost between 7 and 20 złoty (approximately 1.50 to 5 euros) and are mainly vegetarian because meat, during the socialist era, was often considered a luxury reserved for special occasions. It led to a plant-based cuisine that aligns with the growing numbers of vegetarians and vegans in Poland.

Nostalgia and younger Polish generations

Like other post-socialist nations, nostalgia is a recurrent factor in Polish society. Immersing oneself in a milk bar’s interior and atmosphere can feel like a return to the aesthetics of socialist Poland. A notable example is Warsaw’s Rusałka, where weathered wooden walls, simple one-colour tablecloths, and plastic and metal chairs create a frozen-in-time experience. Bold, printed letters decorate the menu, and standing at the ordering counter, you can see the elderly ladies cooking in the kitchen with hair nets and aprons.

For the older generations, nostalgia reveals a sense of being left behind in the transformation to capitalism, marking a loss of identity. Those who fought against the communist regime yearn for life’s purpose — the struggle for freedom. Some miss being young again, while others hold on to emotional artefacts in their homes or persistently purchase the same items and services they once used. Unsurprisingly, milk bars evoke nostalgia by triggering memories and providing emotional experiences. Elders fondly reminisce about the same tasty food over the years, often describing it as “always delicious, fresh, just like mom’s.”

In the meantime, younger generations, not being born into communism or hardly remembering it, hold a subtle nostalgia rooted in childhood memories and an appreciation for retro fashion. Especially for students, who are unlikely to cook for themselves, eating at milk bars provides a “taste of childhood.” Moreover, milk bars offer a unique window into Polish history, providing them with knowledge about traditional cuisine and culture. Lastly, going to a milk bar becomes an adventure. The anticipation builds as they participate in the queue at the cash register, find a spot among the crowded tables, and anxiously wait to hear their food order announced.

The evolution and struggles of the milk bars

Due to the impact of capitalism and the country’s regained independence, milk bars grappled with privatisation and fierce competition from larger brands, resulting in the closure of many. The coronavirus pandemic intensified their struggles, leading to the closure of iconic establishments like Złota Kurka, now transformed into a monument in Warsaw, honouring its original 1950s interior.

Some milk bars have adapted by expanding menus to include more non-locally sourced products, but the most noticeable transformation occurred in their interior. For instance, Prasowy upgraded to a simple and newly furnished interior, making it a clean, simple, and comfortable place to sit and have a meal. The days of the conspicuously printed menu are gone; the only reminder now is the decorative big and bold letters on the walls. Digital screens now display menus in various languages, catering to international visitors, typically in English and Russian. They have embraced multiple payment methods, making them more available for tourists.

However, the transformation extends to a shift in customer demographics. Besides the seniors and families, these establishments now attract business executives, students, hipster crowds, and tourists. This evolution aligns with broader political discussions surrounding gentrification. Although renovations were essential for their survival and viewed positively, trendy milk bars such as Prasowy keep the “old” clientele away. They contribute to social divisions in cities and no longer serve their social function of providing equal opportunities for eating out, especially for vulnerable groups. During the pandemic, locals in Krakow highlighted gentrification and social stratification, saying that milk bars are “at the front lines of the fight between old and new.”

Simultaneously, political debates around vegetarianism, veganism, and animal rights are unfolding. Sylwia Spurek, a member of the European Parliament for the Greens/European Free Alliance, suggested cutting subsidies for animal farms, banning animal product advertising, and eliminating milk bars. However, critics from the Polish People’s Party and the Left called the proposals absurd and argued that milk bars are not places for drinking “shots of milk” but offer affordable and healthy food.

The representation of milk bars in popular culture

Milk bars have also found their way into popular culture. The 1981 comedy Miś by Stanislaw Bareja, for instance, portrays milk bars negatively. The main character, Ryszard Ochódzki, nicknamed Miś, travels to London to be the first to withdraw a large sum of money he deposited there with his ex-wife. The satire shows the absurdity and stupidity of everyday life under communism. One of the scenes depicts milk bars as crowded, chaotic, and uncomfortable places where long lines of people compete for seats and eat with chained utensils and plates firmly affixed to the tables. This image seems to mirror the controlled and restrictive nature of communism, characterised by a lack of trust and a sense of collective ownership. 

Conversely, the 2007 documentary Milkbar, directed by Ewa Einhorn and Terese Mörnvik, provides a positive perspective. It introduces Danuta, a milk bar owner navigating through rising living costs following Poland’s entry into the EU. She dedicates herself to maintaining affordability at her milk bar by asserting that “it’s not only a matter of money. I care about the people.” The documentary portrays milk bars as inclusive places for people of diverse backgrounds to come together and enjoy a meal and underscores the milk bars’ adaptability to changing times. 

Other examples in the region

Exploring food establishments in post-socialist Europe reveals the uniqueness of milk bars. In the Soviet Union, canteen culture evolved within factories and schools, eventually becoming the only place to eat out. Canteen culture persists to this day, but on a smaller scale. The number of working canteens and the dedication to local food vary from country to country, but they hardly compare to milk bars, which appear much livelier.

In Latvia, canteens, or “ēdnīca,” carry negative Soviet-era connotations but provide an opportunity to experience authentic local cuisine, preserving Latvia’s unique flavours amid globalised food culture. In Russia, canteen culture lies in sentiments of nostalgia. Stolovaya 57, with its preserved 1970s-style interiors, now operates as a restaurant, evoking the ‘good old days’ among Russian customers. Meanwhile, in Hungary, the traditional food establishments known as “étkezde,” offer classic Hungarian meals. Despite their cultural significance, these establishments face declining profitability, challenging the younger generation to preserve them.

Milk bars are authentic and nostalgic establishments that are reminders to savour the flavours of history, tradition, and identity from the past in the present day. After being reinvented and reimagined, people appreciate establishments for their social inclusivity. They embody the ideals of wholesome, locally sourced, and budget-friendly food, representing modern, trendsetting lifestyles. Their vital role in preserving Polish identity symbolises the resilience of food culture. So, next time you find yourself in Poland, do not just enjoy a meal at a milk bar; notice a piece of Polishness in every bite.

Feature Image: Wikimedia Commons / Canva
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