Nostalgia on a Plate

Why some Communist foods are seeing a comeback

I spent most of my time in Slovenia drinking blue cans of Cockta. The taste is a little like an ersatz Coca-Cola; caramel-brown and richly carbonated, but with a slightly floral undercurrent — like a brewery in a rose garden. You can find them packed tightly into the nation’s vending machines, soda fountains, and döner restaurants, and today, it is one of the few Yugoslav holdovers in the Slovenian market.

According to Rosana Turk, brand manager for Cockta’s parent company Droga Kolinska, the drink was introduced in the 1950s — a period of burbling optimism for the country — as the citizenry took its first few steps out of World War II and into the 20th century. Cockta, in essence, was representative of a brand new national identity. “We were from the working class but were never deprived of anything. Cockta was a part of that youth, hanging out with friends, summer vacations,” she said in an email. “It was a part of our youth that we still remember with nostalgia today.”

Of course, by the 1960s, as more American products diffused into Slovenia’s borders, Cockta was set aside in favor of Coke, Pepsi, and other Western tonics. “[They] took the lead in advertising, in the stores on the shelves, and even in licensed bottling plants around Yugoslavia,” Turk explained. It wasn’t until the 2000s, after Droga Kolinska acquired the license, that Cockta made its comeback by embracing the exact nostalgia that Turk feels in her bones.

“Cockta became fashionable again. It aroused nostalgia in elders who never forgot it and also young people who never met it,” she said. Cockta’s most famous slogan? “The beverage of ours and your youth.”

The longer you travel in Eastern Europe, the more you understand that every country behind the Iron Curtain has its own Cockta. Communist history is often bloody, punitive, and tragic, but the people who were there have seen it glow in hindsight. There are dozens of brass knots fastened to the front facade of the Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture building in Budapest — a solemn tribute to “Bloody Thursday,” when Soviet forces gunned down dozens of unarmed protesters during the ill-fated Hungarian uprising.

Nostalgia, as always, is best communicated through food and drink.

But only a few streets away, you will find Marxim — an authoritarian-themed pizza pub founded in 1991 shortly after Hungary was relinquished by the Soviet bloc. Current owner László Sipos told me his favorite interior decoration is the Communist Last Supper, designed by his wife, which features the faces of all the Reds pasted over the apostles in Da Vinci’s masterpiece. His second favorite? An image of Lenin begging for change. It’s the sort of dissent that would’ve gotten you killed 40 years ago. Today, though, it’s the ambiance for Marxim’s super-secret pizza pasta recipe. Nostalgia, as always, is best communicated through food and drink.

“You never knew if you or your loved ones will return from work or disappear forever in the secret prisons for politically untrustworthy persons. But even in those bloody dark years, people made political jokes as a form of rebellion against the cruel system. They made jokes about the way they suffered simply to survive,” Sipas said when I asked him how such comedy and tragedy could exist in the same city. “The message of Marxim is that humor will always help to survive difficult times.”

Naturally, Marxim has become a must-visit for out-of-towners vacationing in Budapest. Eastern Europe is beautiful for so many reasons, but inevitably, tourists want to get up close and personal with the formerly alien locales on the far side of the wall. Sipas told me he doesn’t have any political adherence for communist Hungary — instead, his nostalgia is purely corporeal and culinary. The time he spent behind the Iron Curtain taught him to appreciate “the values to live in freedom,” and for the first time in modern Hungarian history, the generation Sipas grew up in is being replaced by one that wasn’t physically present for “those bloody dark years.” “The Hungarians younger than 45 have no experiences or memories living in a communist system. So the communist era is absolutely not present in the daily topics,” he explained. Perhaps authoritarian nostalgia is a dish served best with the buffer of a couple of decades.

But there are also those who, unlike Sipas, have a more complex relationship with their homeland’s communist era. One of the most famous restaurants in Warsaw is called Czerwony Wieprz, “The Red Pig,” which is built in a classic Leninist pavilion and offers a menu divided between “proletariat” dishes and “bourgeoisie” dishes. (As you may expect, the menu for dignitaries includes entrees like “Lenin’s Lamb” and “Soup of wild boar a’la Tito,” and are a lot more expensive than the revolutionary options.)

The interior of Czerwony Wieprz is decorated with “authentic furniture, socialist sculptures and paintings, communist banners, and archaic household appliances,” which, according to owner Piotr Popiński, transports elder Poles back to a time before private property. It’s the inherent capitalism in summoning old communist memories. “Very often, guests of Czerwony Wieprz mention funny situations of the past. With a smile they go back to goods vouchers that could be exchanged for luxurious Western goods, or tell jokes that were popular back then,” he added.

Popiński, like Sipas, said that Poles are weaned on national black humor, and that the heights of the PRL are now “rightly” behind the nation. But he does indulge in a certain socialist mysticism; when a culture is under the thumb of an authoritarian regime, the bonds they form are ironclad. “Most of the happy tales take place back in the ’70s. Many apartments were built then, a kind of Western breeze could be felt,” he explained. “Many still say that during PRL, people were closer, and there was a feeling of community. [It] bred a sense of common vision to defeat the system and achieve a brighter future. The solidarity wasn’t built out of thin air. It was a long process that formed bonds and ideas.”

It’s tough to muster an earth-altering revolution more than once a century. The Poles, Slovenes, and Hungarians have each earned their keep. But at the very least, they can taste that solidarity whenever they want.

writer and reporter - Red Bull, Sports Illustrated, PC Gamer, Vice, Rolling Stone, Daily Dot, Gawker Media, Buzzfeed, Verge etc - winkluke at gmail

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