Polish Milk Bars and the Commodification of Socialist Nostalgia

Written with Anna Gay

A staple of Poland’s 20th-century cultural landscape, milk bars have been a mainstay in Polish society because of its accessibility of quick, cheap, and hearty home-style meals. With sterile surroundings and very much purpose built with no additional comforts, the menu and clientele are remnants of a bygone state socialist era. Milk bars from the communist era in today’s Poland are both a source of nostalgic cuisine and atmosphere for an older crowd and inspiration for a younger. In keeping with the modern trend of gentrification, younger generations have created trendy versions of the milk bar to appeal to tourists. These two incarnations of the milk bar bring into question the national nostalgia of Poland’s communist past and how different generations remember those times.  

We delved into the concepts of nostalgia and tourism in preparation for this excursion and chose to focus on Milk Bar Tomasza located in the heart of historic Krakow. The reason for this choice of site was that we wanted to focus on how our generational counterparts interpreted a milk bar to appeal to the tourist gaze with elements of skewed nostalgia. We wanted to investigate how trendy interpretations of postmodern milk bars are glossing over the legacy of state-subsidized dining for the benefit of tourists. With milk bars being part of the anti-capitalist agenda, this new agenda based on tourism directly counteracts the authentic purpose of the milk bar.

Historical Context

Milk bars emerged in 1896 in Warsaw by a dairy farmer who found it was profitable to serve home cooked egg and dairy-based dishes. The concept caught on, and the government sought to regulate and subsidize this dining option so that all members of the public could afford to eat outside of the home. It became an accessible and iconic option during the Polish People’s Republic, and the self-service establishments became synonymous with blue and white enamelware dishes. Milk bars could only charge no more than half the cost of the materials used, and in modern times they continue to be subsidized by the government. Their prices were always odd numbers because of the state subsidization percentage, and they were constantly changing because the market prices for ingredients would be determined the morning before opening when owners would purchase the groceries for the day.

After the fall of communism in 1991, a nostalgia emerged for the eateries while some criticized their survival. While some clung to the familiarity, others were enraged that this product of poor economic circumstances and state fueled problems were embraced as something to celebrate of a simpler time. Some also decry the food choices as not being traditional Polish cuisine because the economic depression resulted in a scarcity of food, and thus many dishes were lost because of rationing.

 

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Milkbars in the Present Day

It’s very clear that Milk Bar Tomasza caters to a tourist crowd with its simple yet catching decor and a robust menu with a full English translation. While traditional milk bars typically offer simple soups, perogi [dumplings], and cabbage dishes, Milk Bar Tomasza boasts an Irish Breakfast, various meat dishes, and fancied up flavors that were certainly never found in a traditional milkbar. Despite the modern additions, the establishment does offer several items that could have been reminiscent of a communist past but without that knowledge, one would never distinguish it. The dishware is a far cry from simple enamelware, and the only indicators of a socialist past can be suggested by image of Nowa Huta, a built from scratch communist part of town outside the main city of Krakow,  that adorns its walls.  A look at Milk Bar Tomasza’s digital presence showed that many tourists and travel content offerings all referred to eating there as a “traditional” experience, one that was not to be missed.

On the contrary, a visit to two traditional milk bars outside of the city center was immediately more in line with the traditional idea of a milk bar as a bare, self-service, simple dish offering with a local clientele. One was simply called Bar Mleczny, the literal translation of “milk bar”). These milk bars were closer to an authentic experience as we could get. When comparing the prices of the dining establishments in the second and third milk bars were lower in cost, an important element of the state-subsidized legacy, while Milk Bar Tomasza was a fixed, higher price. The other milk bars were more authentic in a sense that it was unchanged in its offering and appearance, and the patrons were not the same ones that would dine at Milk Bar Tomasza. At one location, neighborhood locals served from large silver pots various pierogi and soups; the Polish menu boards did not have English translations, and some of the silverware had holes where they used to be chained to the table so they could not be taken. In comparison to the kitschy Milk bar Tomasza, this establishment still seemed to be a necessary part of the social landscape of that neighborhood. Not so much a lively hub as one might assume an integral part of a neighborhood landscape might be, but this sterile cafeteria offers members of the public a good meal on a budget. They are continuing to “take care” of their patrons and in turn, they are possibly perpetuating feelings of positive nostalgia for the communist past.

Nostalgia

Nostalgia for the communist past has been the topic of many scholars since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Nostalgia is often times associated with aging and longing for “the good old days”, for older generations to go back and live in the glory of their youth. Social aspects of communism and milk bars may represent the feeling of being “ taken care of” by the communist government. While many western countries struggled to feed their populations after the Second World War, Poland’s food subsidies helped their citizens get good filling meals for a pittance. As one memory often leads to another, the presence of older milk bars can bring back other nostalgic yearnings such as yearning for a more equal society. However there is also an element of paradox in that post-1991 society saw much poverty and social  inequality, and the milkbars as a symbol today also hold that legacy. In an NPR article, a polish milk bar employee states “Poles are looking for something familiar and no longer associate milk bars with a difficult past”, implying that the nostalgia surrounding milk bars is not necessarily about the communist regime itself, but the camaraderie of equality of this time.

According to Prusik and Lewicka, nostalgia is a multidimensional concept revolving around personal, historical, and collective memories. Building off the previous article, this piece makes the connection between experiencing and unhappy present and linking that to a happy past. We could use social programs as an example of this. If the social welfare programs of the communist regime allowed for the equal opportunity for everyone, then the wealth discrepancy we can see today in modern day would create a positive nostalgia for the communist past. With Prusik & Lewicka pinpointing the 1970’s as the highest point of positive nostalgia for the communist era, then most of those people are still living today and are able to be a target audience for milk bars.

As stated by May, “nostalgia is not necessarily just about harking back to an idealized (and partly fictionalized) past, but can also be a critical intervention in the present that recognizes ‘aspects of the past as the basis for renewal and satisfaction in the future” (404). Orienting the past through socialist nostalgia for younger generations presents many layers, but it also reveals a dissatisfaction with the state of government today. “Most of these individuals are nostalgic for job security, free education and reliable and affordable healthcare. This is because most Eastern Europeans remember and long for the vast social programmes and services that are no longer offered under capitalism” (Biray). Perhaps it’s from this emotion that the milkbar has emerged as a convenient way to mythicize a past because it is non-threatening, but it could also act as a mobilizer in the discussion of why citizens feel the need for such nostalgia in the first place. 

 

 

Online Sources

https://www.humanityinaction.org/knowledgebase/62-lost-and-found-communism-nostalgia-and-communist-chic-among-poland-s-old-and-young-generations

https://www.humanityinaction.org/knowledgebase/62-lost-and-found-communism-nostalgia-and-communist-chic-among-poland-s-old-and-young-generations

Biray, Kurt https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/kurt-biray/communist-nostalgia-in-eastern-europe-longing-for-past

https://qz.com/637663/polands-trendy-milk-bars-are-a-poignant-reminder-of-its-time-under-communism/

https://www.saveur.com/fight-to-save-poland-milk-bars-warsaw

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/12/01/503788967/poles-return-to-a-taste-of-their-soviet-past-cheap-milk-bars

May, Vanessa. “Belonging from Afar: Nostalgia, Time and Memory.” The Sociological Review, vol. 65, no. 2, May 2017, pp. 401–415

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