None of us knew her, but we all knew her name: Gienia. I don’t think I ever said anything to Pani (‘Miss’) Gienia beyond bez ziemniaków (no potato) or bez mięsa (no meat), depending on how I felt about the set meal that day. And yet, over the years, she has remained with me in spirit.
I went to school in an idyllic location – so idyllic that the building is now an old people’s home. Surrounded by a quiet, dense forest, the school mainly served the adjacent housing estate, where I lived, and the sister estate on the other side of the National Park. Children from the 23rd of March Street (so named after the day in 1945 that the resort of Sopot was freed from Nazi occupation by the Red Army) were brought over on a local bus, its schedule synchronized with the beginning and end of the school day. Herding rowdy pupils on board, the teachers would shout Kto na Marca? (“Anyone for March?”), and the recurring joke was that their cries would eventually begin to sound like Kto na Marsa? (“Anyone for Mars?”). Perhaps to the kids on my estate, so attached to our own community, life across the forest did indeed feel as distant as Mars.
Allegedly, Pani Gienia lived in the small detached house right beside my school – a drab, unrendered building on the edge of the picturesque woodland. But this was just a rumour and, really, we knew nothing about her life outside what we, as yet oblivious to the nuances of gender and labour, considered to be her kingdom: the school canteen. There, her imposing presence made Pani Gienia the empress, ruling over a team of cooks, all of them older women (whose names I have sadly either forgotten or never knew) and their army of catering-sized pots. One of these women was particularly notorious for giving us stern looks if we hadn’t eaten every last bit of food, sometimes even going as far as telling someone off. Still, not returning your half-finished plate to the hatch was against the rules, a violation of social contract – so we would drop it off and shuffle away as fast as we could, heads hung in shame.
Almost everything I know about traditional Polish fare, I know from the school canteen – from Pani Gienia, who fed us the homeliest of homemade dishes. It seemed like there was nothing she hadn’t mastered: from the sweet racuchy (half-doughnuts, half-pancakes) and rich łazanki (pasta with cabbage – not as strange as it sounds), my personal favourites, to the horrifying jaja w sosie chrzanowym (eggs in horseradish sauce) and stodgy fasolka po bretońsku (Breton beans) – the reason I’ll never like the Heinz variety. Waiting in line to find out what the dish of the day was (usually there would only be one, on rare occasions two) could make or break the school day: whenever an old favourite was on offer, the news would spread fast, down the queue and then onto the school corridors beyond.
While soup was free for anyone and everyone, claiming your main course – paid for in affordable monthly subscriptions – was a procedure governed by an entirely manual and rather provisional system. At the beginning of the school year, each canteen-user was assigned a number, later jotted down alongside their name on a lined piece of paper the thickness and size of a business card. “Year 6, number 21,” you would announce to the teaching assistant on duty upon entering the canteen, handing over your token to Pani Gienia once you got to the front of the queue. The cards were kept in plastic sleeves and stacked in what had once been a Neapolitan ice cream box. Putting them back in order was a daily feature of the after-school club; and because I tended to be dropped off at school first and collected last, over the years I became well versed in this ritual.
We ate at perpendicular rows of square tables, over laminate tops covered with yet another water-resistant layer of glossy, wipe-clean tablecloths in a distinctive red-and-white check pattern. The canteen doubled as a performance space for theatrical productions and curiosities such as poetry reciting contests; a heavy burgundy curtain hung on the back wall, together with the coat of arms of Poland – the White Eagle. From the large windows, we looked out onto the sprawling school yard. When the closure of the school was announced, years after I had left, it was the loss of that canteen that I mourned on behalf of future generations.
There is only one place that can today fill the kotlet-shaped gap left in my life by Pani Gienia’s cooking: Bar Mleczny Słoneczny (‘Sunny’ Milk Bar) in Gdynia. Open since 1959, it’s an institution that has fed generations of families, including my own, serving a variety of simple, filling dishes.
Like the school canteen, a typical Polish milk bar (so named after its customary reliance on dairy products) is governed by a set of arbitrary rules. Here, too, all of the cooks are women, young and old. While they don’t scold you for not finishing your meal, their tone makes it clear that communication must be kept to a bare minimum, food ordered in the swiftest manner possible. No wonder – I cannot remember the last time there wasn’t a queue outside the bar’s location in the city centre, on a pleasingly rounded corner of a five-storey residential building with the entrance on one side and the exit on the other.
Unlike the interiors of most restaurants, Słoneczny’s layout does nothing to hide its inherent communality. Prior to the current pandemic, crammed around tables somewhat reminiscent of school desks, people from all walks of life dined together: students and pensioners, tourists and locals, both the beneficiaries of the economic transition initiated in 1989 and its losers. Precisely no one who frequents Słoneczny is bothered by the fact that this is one of the few places where you can still find the dying breed of scallop-edge napkins made of wax paper, so shiny and non-absorbent (much like the familiar chequered tablecloth) that they hardly qualify as napkins at all.
The menu is displayed on a board above the cash register. As in other establishments of this kind, prices are put up or taken down on a daily basis, depending on the availability of the listed dishes. Apart from the staples of Polish cuisine, Słoneczny serves the kind of food you would only ever have at two places, the school canteen or the milk bar – specifically, a variety of sweet meals, such as fruit soup or rice with cream and sugar. Kompot, a purple blackcurrant infusion far superior to any juice, tastes exactly like the one I had at school, and is served in exactly the same post-war ‘bar mug’, a characteristic handle-less beaker made out of thick white porcelain, now recognized as a design classic. The experience is so reminiscent of dining at my school canteen, it almost seems like a luxury to be able to pick and choose from the selection of soups, mains and sides as I please.
For people like me, born from the year 1990 onwards, milk bars aren’t especially ‘communist’, at least not in the way that this word is now used as a form of condemnation. Though popularized during the socialist Polish People’s Republic, they actually historically predate the period – and, regardless, this is not a simple case of Ostalgia. Their current popularity is described as a recent fad only by those who clearly never use them. Regular visitors know that places like Słoneczny are not remnants of the past. Rather, the political role that they play in Polish society is an ongoing one.
The prime concern of the kind of chef that Pani Gienia represents is not the art of cooking itself. The range of tried-and-tested recipes has been the same for decades – there’s no showing off. Instead, these mostly anonymous women continue to perform the role of custodians of food as a public matter. They’ve dedicated themselves to nourishing and nurturing a community, one that depends on us joining them in taking collective responsibility for the way we eat: us ordering quickly, us finishing our meals, us bringing the plates back to the hatch. Even today, milk bars are exceedingly cheap, as cheap as eating out could be – they might no longer be state-run, but they are still state-subsidized. On top of this, they operate as soup kitchens, working in tandem with local governments to provide hot meals to those unable to afford them. As such, Słoneczny welcomes the kind of patrons that the restaurant excludes: homeless people, single people, people who bring their own Tupperware or, worse, recycled glass jars.
What the school canteen had taught me about sharing food, Słoneczny sustains. Milk bars safeguard Poland’s rich and varied culinary tradition through demonstrating the meaning of care – not just in relation to the produce they use but the people who eat it. In fact, there is nothing about this branch of gastronomy that should be thought of as archaic; if anything, the bars are futuristic. They increase efficiency and minimize waste; throughout the day, dishes sell out and disappear off the menu. They exemplify forward-thinking cooking: seasonal, inclusive of vegetarian options, and based on the premise that everyone should have access to a fresh, nutritious meal. If there is a sense of nostalgia that they induce, it’s not for an idealized version of the past but for an approach towards food that seems to be going extinct – eating out that goes beyond individual enjoyment and becomes a way of coming together.
In a normal year, tourists would already be crowding inside Słoneczny; but the pandemic has changed things – for now, it’s takeaway only. Soon, green beans will be in full season. Thinking about the way that they are served, pleasantly overcooked and with a thick layer of buttery breadcrumbs, I find myself feeling sad that I don’t know the names of the women who work there. Would asking disrupt the flow of service?, I wonder.
And was Gienia short for Genowefa or Eugenia?
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