Essay

Meat

Published in Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Vol. 48, No. 2, May 2012.

The essay reflects on the anthropology of everyday life in the socialist system, with particular reference to Poland between 1945 and 1989, using the example of meat –its acquisition, preparation and symbolic function. The treatment of meat under socialism is similar to that under Nazi occupation: shortages in meat supply pose a threat to the health, life and happiness of citizens. What is new in socialism is women’s specialization in home meat processing. Also, socialism produces “meat folklore” – the supply system, illegal circulation, queues, ration coupons, shopping as “hunting”. On the other hand, the authorities punish unofficial trade severely, which reinforces the popular conviction that meat is especially important. The opposition between past and the present lies in the different approach to meat and its consumption. The “meatness” of the past epoch can be treated from a contemporary ecofeminist perspective as an aberration, as abjectness and addiction. The text uses the generic tradition of Virginia Woolf’s essay-writing, where literary, anthropological and historical knowledge function alongside autobiographical micro-narrations.

At the beginning, two historical snapshots. Snapshot one: my encounter with the martial law happened on the way back home in the small hours of 13 December 1981. I had just left my cousin’s booze-fuelled birthday party – lots of mediocre, imported wine, vodka, sandwiches, hot dishes featuring hunter’s stew – bigos and pizza Slavonic style – made of a thick crust, sprinkled with marjoram, covered with sausage. The Bosman beer, polococta and pepsi – soft drinks imitating their western brands, produced in the local brewery. Additionally, fizzy water from the siphon bottle (purple at my cousin’s, blue at my place, functional art not yet known as “designer” drinks). We drank a lot – drank continually. Practically from early childhood on, we inherited from our older siblings, friends and parents this ostentatiously catastrophic style, still reeking of the occupation and the underground: this sitting of a night, criticizing the current state of affairs, talking about literature, all washed down with large gulps of booze. Films about the occupation and post-war existentialism boosted the Romantic ethos. And so the tradition endured decade after decade. Girls also partook of those vapours of smoke and exhaled wine fumes: not all, not the God-fearing ones, raised with a firm hand. Some of them stole away and joined in. However, this is not what I will write about here – not about the endemic drunkenness of the age of innocence, when neither cigarettes nor vodka seemed to pose a threat to the planet or to morality. In this regard, up until the end of the 1980s, Poland was still in the 1950s, or 1960s at best. We did know that alcohol consumption is harmful, that smoking kills – but we had more important problems than promoting a healthy lifestyle. Indeed, if anything, drinking and smoking delineated the zones of freedom. Night parties reinforced bonds, made us believe we controlled our reality. “Ourness” was essential, charting the contours of our identity in this particular place, in the Poland of the People’s Republic – of great traditions we were taught about at school, of great secrets imparted at home, of immense daily consumer needs resulting in a permanent state of emergency.

So, I was coming back from the party when, on a street corner, I saw a tank. The snow covered the sleeping city; the tank seemed a surreal outgrowth of drunkenness.

How many such stories would I read later, on the occasion of subsequent anniversaries of the martial law (as the regime called it), or the Polish-Jaruzelski war (as we would say) Countless. Some of us, undoubtedly, were nursing a massive hangover when greeted by General Jaruzelski’s morning speech.

Snapshot two: 11 September 2001. I was swimming in a bay under a cliff in Dubrovnik. The house on the cliff was run-down, the owner fished, his wife worked in a hospital. At night they sat on the terrace drinking wine and eating grilled calamari. The landlord caught squid with a harpoon; this was the main target of his daily sea-odyssey. They did not renovate the house inherited from their parents – they didn’t have to. The view over the bay, over the red city rooftops – newly tiled after the war, the warm sea, the colourful flowers and olive trees hanging over the dinner table guaranteed good profits from rent. The landlady came down the cliff and asked if we knew about the war in America. In America? War? And flights cancelled. We did not know. It was like in Gałczyński’s poem “A Song of the Soldiers of Westerplatte” about the outbreak of the war on 1 September 1939: the summer had been beautiful that year. How many times has such a peaceful time been a prelude to a catastrophe! The two snapshots are 20 years apart. Different times. Vodka, frost, tanks getting into the frame. Mineral water, heat, an obscure message in an unknown language. The idyll of the end of summer, incredible peace. I cannot even write that I moved on, between these two historical dates, from vodka to wine. I persevered in abstinence with dignity and did not need Croatian plonk to be happy. And then there is one additional difference – meat. Here also two different snapshots. There – pizza with sausage; here – vegetarian pizza. There, blood wiped clean from the kitchen table; here grapes with white bread.

In her “What Was Good About the People’s Republic?” (2009; “Co było dobre w peerelu?”), Tamara Bołdak-Janowska lists the following as a way of answering the title question:

Glass and paper packaging. Milk, cream in a glass bottle. Sausage and ham in paper wrapping. We scorned such packaging, because it was plainly socialist. In 1971 a kilo of ham cost three złote. An average teacher’s salary was 1700 złote, and one could earn extra, up to 3500 złote, from overtime lessons or tutoring in a boarding school.

Measuring wealth with the price of ham in relation to monthly salaries says much aboutthe system in power between 1945 and 1989.

On 12 December my father and my fiancé would go to a village to get meat. It was a national pastime: getting pork in primal cuts. From the occupation onwards, constant supply problems. In time, rationing through a system of coupons. At the beginning, for the first 20 years, a war with profiteers – political lawsuits brought against the meat saboteurs who allegedly contributed to our misery. The most widely publicized lawsuit opened with a hearing on 20 November 1964 and included 400 defendants charged with theft and doctoring invoices. The main allegation concerned Stanisław Wawrzecki, director of the Capital City Meat Trade. Wawrzecki was sentenced to death, and hanged on 18 March 1965. It was the last death penalty for economic crime in Poland. The State Council did not consider its right to pardon. Four directors in the industry were given life sentences in the same lawsuit, and five others got from nine to 12 years in prison. In all these cases an additional penalty included forfeiture and large fines. The defendants had families who were left without means of sustenance. The state was not coping with the task of feeding the nation. At the end of the second post-war decade the proverbial pork chop became both a requisite and a difficult-to-obtain element of Polish culture. The state needed a scapegoat. Revenge had to be convincing and severe in order to demonstrate the authorities’ stringency and benevolence. Somebody had to be hanged in place of the missing ham on the butcher’s hook. The ones who devoured the most. Include in the circle of penance their families, fattened on tenderloin taken away from the Polish babies nursed by their heroic mothers. Nursed by the bottle, rather, because that generation did not believe in natural nursing; raising kids on the hygienic bottle was the promulgated orthodoxy of the time.

In this culture of lack, meat thus held a special position. Other kinds of lack did not threaten the nation’s condition that much. We could still “remember” (with the memory inherited from our parents and grandparents) the occupation – the war quotas for the Germans, ersatz foods, tuberculosis and anemia. Belief in the power of veal liver was unwavering, and the meat saboteur could not hope for mercy. On 27 July 2004 the Supreme Court overturned the sentences in the “meat swindle” case. The affair inspired numerous films, articles and analyses. In one of these the author quotes a joke characteristic of the time –

What’s the difference between the pre-war meat shop and a post-war one? Before the war the shop had “butcher” on its signboard, and there was meat inside. Now the shop has “meat” on its signboard and there is only a butcher inside. (Lipiński 20)

– and an opinion by an expert, Professor Andrzej Rzepliński: “Instead of hanging ham in the shop, they hanged Wawrzecki in prison” (ibid.). Gomułka had his own peculiar understanding of the economy. He was convinced that the lack of supplies was caused by thieves, embezzlers, bribers and bribees, and that the state had to fight them to change the situation. How to fight them? With fear. Wawrzecki was hanged. It was a court murder. The judge knew that the sentence had already been passed. The judge was only the tip of the pen.

On the other hand, everybody knew that the economy relied on private, half-legal circulation of goods and services, on the incentive and ability to compensate for shortages. We would buy meat from a peasant baba – a woman, who sometimes turned out to be a man, dziad. But such complicity in illegal trade did not interfere with a sudden popular suspicion that there must have been something in it. A death sentence for a so-called “economy crime” was a terrible thing indeed, but, after all, they fattened up on our protein deficit. “They” were suddenly no longer a part of “us”, and became almost as hated as the authorities. They traded and swindled, so their hands were not clean. In any case, considering the type of merchandise, their hands were clearly “unclean”. Sympathy went hand in hand with envy and this is what Comrade Władysław Gomułka, occupation nickname Wiesław, the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party, hoped to achieve – a conviction that the authorities will punish for unjust privileges growing like weeds in the socialist garden, and more, a naive belief that several dozen, or even several hundred meat plant directors could bring the planned economy to the breakdown. After all, he believed it himself; he was not an economic analyst,but a practitioner of direct power and he had proof of its efficiency.

 

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