If the proverb “you are what you eat” has any validity, then I can say that for a couple of hours I was a “really existing socialist.” I came to this conclusion when I attended a presentation by the Lithuanian artist Indre Klimaite, who visited Chisinau in August in order to realize her project entitled “Canteen.” The project was part of the Chisinau – Art, Research and Public Sphere series of events curated by Stefan Rusu and organized by KSA:K (Center for Contemporary Art, Chisinau). Indre flew from Holland to investigate the canteens of the former socialist countries (or as critics and theorists call them today, the countries of  “really existing socialism,” in order to distinguish socialism as a social order that once existed in some countries from socialism as a political aspiration or doctrine). In many countries of what used to be called the Eastern Bloc the socialist canteens have long ago disappeared, whereas in Moldova, which is at the tail end of the capitalist revolution, some are still left.

Indre’s presentation took place in the canteen of the former military factory “Vibropribor” – a Russian acronym that translates literally as “Vibrating Device.” The  presentation did not start in time due to a blackout and while waiting for electricity we decided to have lunch with the workers and the personnel of the “vibrating device” factory, who were also expected to be the main audience of Indre’s presentation. I ordered three courses – chicken soup (first), meat balls on top of buckweat kasha (second) with salad (also counts as a second course), and stewed fruit, which is locally called compot (third course), plus bread, which in this culture is the “thing-in-itself”, as it is eaten with everyhting and is not considered part of any course. For this three-course triad of the socialist menu I paid something like 24 Lei (about $2) – a reasonable amount, given that the prices in the local private food industry are almost as high as in the West (and this is in spite of Moldova's notorious poverty among European nations).

1st Course

2nd Course

3rd Course

These pictures show the order in which I consumed my socialist lunch. (Note that the dishes in the above pictures may not correspond to what I actually ate.) Under state socialism there is a certain order, and it may not be considered a sign of good taste to begin with the second or third courses, although nobody of course will arrest you if you decide to express your distinct individuality and start with the stewed fruit (which at the time we called kompotas, in order to maintain the Lithuanian spirit of this project).

For her project Indre researched, observed, learned and documented this particular socialist ethos, making a series of videos and photos of this canteen life style, which is gradually disapearing as these canteens are privatized and turned into fancy and more expensive chains within the local private food industry. She was not interested in comparing socialist and capitalist lunches  My mind however, treated for several years with intense art historical therapy, could not abstain from comparing and contrasting the capitalist and the socialist experiences, looking at them as one looks at the left and right slides in a PowerPoint presentation. Here is what I found:

Socialist consumption is more ordered, and to this contributes elements of both the interior architecture and the menu. While in the socialist canteen the consumers are directed one-by-one towards the counter by a “really existing wall” (or railings as in the picture below) –

– in the McDonalds the dividing element of architecture is a line which is usually drawn on the floor in front of the consumers. One might say that the American division is intangible, as the marked line runs symbolically through the minds of the customers waiting to get their portion of fast food. There are differences also in the process of preparation and consumption of food. In McDonalds, for instnace, you can see where the hamburgers are prepared but you cannot enter that area, whereas in the socialist canteen you cannot see how the food is cooked but you can go and see the kitchen if you so desire.

These open spaces in McDonalds restaurants want to suggest that the food is freshly “prepared” right in front of the customers, while in fact the products are cooked from prefabricated materials produced who knows where and by who know whom. In the socialist kitchen, at least the one I visited, the ingredients – I was told – were bought at the local farmer's market. In Moldova the gastronomical wonders designed by high-technological Monsantos and Krafts are sold only at supermarkets, and accordingly they would be much more expensive for the socialist canteen than local products grown by farmers in the country (a complete contrast with the West where this relation is inversed). Differences exist also in the mode of consumption of socialist and capitalist food. In the socialist canteen courses are served one after another: soup, meatballs and buckweat with salad, and kompotas (with the bread as the vanishing mediator among them all). In the McDonalds, I at least eat everyting at once – a bite from the hamburger, a sip of coke, a potato chip (gulp, gulp, and it's all gone fast). It seems to me that in the McDonalds most of the products are already full courses; the hamburger for example already contains bread, meat, salad, ketchup and other things, all in one unit. There are of course other differences: WiFi, MTV on the walls of the local McDonalds, glamorous advertising, efficiency, multitasking, and smiles effectively managed by managers of the fast food industry versus silence (or sometimes horrible Russian pop -music), monochromatic ambience, clumsiness, rigid division of labor, and the not very smiley or friendly faces of the employees and customers of the socialist canteen. A bright and cheerful hypocrisy versus a gloomy and cheap sincerity – choose one side if you can!

One last note. Many Westerners would be worried about sanitation and other “safety” issues – the eternal liberal desire to get though this life as comfortably and easily as possible. But as I was sitting swallowing my buckwheat kasha could I help but remember that scene from Fight Club where Brad Pitt urinates in the food of very expensive clients, or those videos on YouTube where employees of diverse fast food chains in the United States entertain themselves by doing all sort of nasty things to their clients' food? So from this perspective socialist food is not more dangerous than the capitalist version.

Octavian Esanu, August 2010.