If you think your Christmas table was boring and blasé, let me take you on a journey to the Soviet Union in the 1980s to explore the food items they served on very special occasions.
You know you have lived under socialism if at some point in your life mayonnaise was a rare and expensive treat.
You know you have lived under socialism if at some point in your life mayonnaise was a rare and expensive treat. The pure white goodness that currently sells for $4 per 48 ounces at any shop in the US was nearly nonexistent in the Soviet Union. Also, 48 ounces (nearly 1.5 kg) of mayo was an unheard-of quantity. Mayonnaise came not in kilograms but small, quarter-pound (100 gram) jars. If you were lucky enough to get it, say, in September, you would carefully keep it in a fridge for an important occasion, like a birthday, wedding, or New Year’s party.
You would think that the country with the most arable land in the world would figure out how to grow peas. Then again, you’d be wrong—because socialism. Awful-by-today’s-standards canned green peas from Bulgaria got everyone hooked on the taste. If you were lucky and purchased a can in June of the previous year together with mayonnaise, it formed the core of a special salad that no celebration involving food could go without. Even today, when you can purchase all-you-can-carry mayo and green peas, older folks are still hooked on that taste.
For some reason, there was a shortage of cooking oil in the Soviet Union. Okay, the reason was socialism and central planning, but still, that’s pretty low even by their standards. Of course, people cooked and fried things, but with lard, shortenings, or other animal fat. If you could get a bottle of cooking oil (like my mother at a trade union holiday raffle), you would proudly display it in your kitchen rather than cook with it. I once noticed my mother using that oil to cook fish, and I asked what holiday it was. I also remember keeping the empty plastic bottle to use as a drinking bottle. You see, there were no plastic drinking bottles under socialism.
Even though instant coffee appeared in the 19th century, socialism didn’t get the message. Therefore, instant coffee—even the really cheap one from India—was a big deal. If you think that shortage of instant coffee meant that everyone drank the barista-crafted, organically sourced, freshly brewed kind, think again.
If you got your hands on a can of instant coffee, you would display it proudly and bring it out if you had company over.
Soviet industry, true to its core belief of making cheap rip-offs of Western products, made its own version of instant coffee that resembled a mixture of industrial leftovers, acorns, and chicory. If you got your hands on a can of instant coffee, you would display it proudly and bring it out if you had company over.
Any fruit that did not grow locally was a major delicacy and status symbol. To be fair, the Soviets were not the first ones to value rare fruits. After all, pineapples used to be so expensive that Europe saw pineapples used for rent, but that was in the 1780s. Under socialism, the same thing was happening in the 1980s! If you got a banana (or even a bunch of bananas) as a Christmas present, you could consider yourself lucky. As for pineapples, us kids had only seen pictures.
I bet that if you served your kid only hot dogs for a week, child services would take them away. Back in Soviet times, the prospect of eating frankfurters for a week would be akin to bathing in champagne, swimming in caviar, or feasting on some soon-to-be-extinct animal. In other words, it was a luxury. As it is fitting for a socialist economy, you could always count on grocery stores not having frankfurters.
The only place you could get them was a cafeteria at ridiculous markups, close to a day’s wages for a couple of pounds of the most basic hot dogs. Even then, if you wanted to buy more than two pounds, you’d have to bring your child, spouse, or a friend to show that you were buying them for a larger group of people rather than merely for yourself.
Did I mention there was no ketchup?
First, even though this reads like satire, that was everyday life under socialism. Mind you, I lived in Lithuania, which was kind of the “West” of the Soviet Union. Tens of millions of people had it much worse.
It’s a myth that there was no income and wealth inequality in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The only difference from capitalism was that socialist material inequality came with a side of gulag.
Second, there was no equal sharing of suffering. Members of the Communist Party, socialist functionaries, etc., had it all and then some. It’s a myth that there was no income and wealth inequality in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The only difference from capitalism was that socialist material inequality came with a side of gulag.
Third, the real unsung heroes of feeding families under socialism were the women. Women, who had full-time jobs, had to queue for hours for a can of green peas. They had to pickle, marinate, salt, and dry all sorts of vegetables and wild mushrooms, which they grew and gathered themselves.
How about a toast to the man-made marvel that is a modern capitalist economy?