Anthropologist Lindsey Foltz has been studying contemporary everyday food preservation practices in Bulgaria in the context of food sovereignty and finding a lot to learn about developing and preserving resilient food systems. Food preservation in Bulgarian households, she says, can be seen as social practices that condense in the cellar. They are intrinsically linked to other social practices of everyday life such as shopping, gardening, gathering, cooking, and eating.
Bulgaria has a lot to offer those interested in resilient foodways in terms of theory and practice. It is a country where food preservation practices exist among and between food systems that are often assumed (especially in Western perspectives) to be in binary opposition to one another. For example, industrial and small-scale agriculture; cultivated and wild foods; formal and informal economies; leisure and work do not function as stark polarities but rather in interconnecting, mutually supportive relationships through which home preservers practice, develop, and share their craft. The entanglement of formal and informal economies, domestic and wild foods, smallholders and industrial farms, local and global influences visible in everyday food practices in Bulgaria specifically and Eastern Europe more broadly condense in household cellars. As the cellar tour I describe below illustrates, these uniquely social practices provide resilience in terms of food security and the ability to pursue something more than mere survival.
When I meet Vasi she is just coming from the elementary school. During her working years, she was a primary school teacher and continues to volunteer in retirement. She is wearing a well-tailored dress complemented by formal shoes with low heels. We walk down the block to her house, which sits over the small-machine shop that she owns with her husband. As she walks down the sidewalk to her gate, she greets a group of children who are buying breakfast at the corner bakery.
We take off our shoes, stash our bags and head upstairs into her kitchen. There she is making yoghurt with milk from a woman she knows; she does this twice a week. She unwraps a towel and lifts the lid on a round enamel pot to reveal the new yoghurt. It is sitting next to the stove in a warm and draft-free part of the house. She feeds me a large spoonful —it has a pleasant, mild sourness. She is adamant that you can only use fresh milk to make yoghurt, and that it is better to buy milk from people you know, from “poznati”. Vasi buys milk from poznati because “You know they won’t sell you something bad or that will make you sick, you know each other, and they will take care of you”. She describes this milk that she buys as “clean” and “good quality”.
Vasi has heard I am especially interested in cellars, so she offers to give me a tour of hers. Even though it is a hot September day, the air is cool as we descend into the stone and cement basement. She flips on a bare light bulb and opens an old wooden door to reveal a spotless and well-organised cellar. In the deepest, coolest part wooden wine barrels stand next to thick plastic ones she will use to ferment cabbage later in the fall, and a square plastic jug with a spigot containing the last remains of a lightly fermented lingonberry drink. “This is good for the kidneys,” she tells me as she offers a small glass of the tart and slightly fizzy brew. “In general, the mountains have them [lingonberries]. But if we don’t go to gather them ourselves then we buy them in the market from someone who did”. There are also dried herbs hanging which she uses for tea and as seasoning.
Along the walls, she has several custom-built wooden shelves that go from the floor almost up to the ceiling. Fabric hangs in front of each shelf, keeping dust off the jars stored there. She pulls up the green, flower-patterned fabric from the first shelf to reveal rows of jewel-coloured jars and bottles. The first shelf is full of compote: raspberries, strawberries (cultivated and wild), pear, peach, apricot, sour cherry, sweet cherry, cornelian cherry, and plums (both yellow and blue).
We walk up two steps, just outside the cellar, into the garage where she stores her preserved vegetables. There are sliced cucumber pickles, tomatoes in saltwater, marinated cherry tomatoes with spicy peppers, mixed vegetables (gyuvech), marinated eggplant, marinated summer squash, a seasoned tomato and pepper puree that she uses as a soup starter (podpravka), roasted pepper and tomato chutney (lyutentisa), tomato juice, and ketchup (which she makes because her grandchildren like it on pizza).
The jars are of different sizes and shapes, and some of them are recycled industrially produced food jars. But most of them are squat with rounded shoulders, common from socialist times, sealed by round metal lids that must be crimped on with a hand tool. Many of these jars belonged to her mother, who bought them when Vasi was five; they are over 50 years old now. Vasi says that she buys new jars from time to time if older ones break.
Glass jars are critical to ongoing food preservation practices in Bulgaria. Many people I interviewed inherited large collections of glass jars from their mothers, mothers-in-law, or grandmothers. Indeed, practices are mostly learned from older generations; traditionally, mothers, grandmothers or mothers-in-law taught about food preservation, while older male relatives passed down skills related to making alcohol. Though I noticed that when families gathered to make preserves or alcohol together these stark gendered divisions of labour were rather blurry in practice, interviewees consistently attributed expertise in gendered terms.
I was also instructed on proper jar etiquette; if you receive a jar it is essential that you return it to its owner after you eat the contents. Many of the jars in the cellars I inventoried during my research were produced during socialist times. They most commonly have crimp-on metal lids or single-piece threaded metal lids and can be purchased in almost every outdoor market, shop, and supermarket in the country during the spring and summer months. Additionally, many people will reuse jars that originally contained commercially processed foods. Some of these are also from the socialist period, notably small baby food jars that many people saved from when their children were small. These re-used jars are evidence of a hybrid approach to food provisioning that makes use of purchased, industrially produced food in addition to home-grown and preserved foods.
The ingredients are acquired anew each year. The participants use multiple sources, methods, and economies for doing so: some foods are produced by the families themselves, either grown in gardens or foraged. Ingredients such as oil, spices, sugar, and salt are purchased from formal markets. Some also buy vegetables from supermarkets and large-scale vegetable producers. Informal or grey markets are another source of ingredients which can include fruits, vegetables, herbs, milk, or meat. These are often purchased from neighbours or other people that they know (poznati), who are not licensed or taxed on this production. Because food flows from exchanges inside and outside formal markets, these producers’ relationship with food is not exclusively commodity-defined.
In summary, exchange (purchase in the formal market), production, and transfer (informal exchange) are all common features of the ingredients found in Bulgarian cellars. As we look through the jars in the garage, Vasi makes the comment that her daughter tends to buy fresh but “plastic” imported fruits and vegetables all winter long. I have often heard people describe these imports as “plastic” or “wooden” because while they look nice, they don’t have any smell or taste. Vasi doesn’t understand the point of buying this produce, since the taste isn’t as good, and she thinks it is expensive and unhealthy to buy produce out of season. Most of the produce that Vasi eats and preserves comes from her garden, alongside things like blueberries, strawberries, and herbs gathered from the forest or the mountains. She buys sugar, salt, and oil for making preserves either locally or from a larger chain store in a nearby town.
Fermenting, drying, and jarring food for personal and familial consumption, as Vasi does, are relatively common practices in post-socialist countries. These home-preserved foods embody a nexus of practices linking material, biological and cultural survival, formal and informal economies, social networks, and wild and cultivated foods. They show how ordinary people engaging in mundane social practices, like saving food for the winter, are creating resilience and meaning in their lives in the face of economic and political forces that lie largely beyond their control. Home-based food preservation practices, which provided resilience in political food regimes of the past, continue to be adaptive long after Bulgaria joined the global market economy in 1996; they are increasingly being integrated into the industrial, corporate food regime.
While home-preserved foods have deep historical roots in Bulgaria and play a significant role in contemporary household strategies for making do, they are also tied to experiences of living under state socialism. Citizens in socialist countries developed complex and multifaceted strategies to negotiate economies of shortage, secure basic material needs, and pursue something more than just utilitarian survival. Securing access to food that not only met one’s basic nutritional needs, but also the need for celebration, hospitality, and for performing personal, local and/or national identity required elaborate strategies, networks and skills. Thus, the centrally planned economy in socialist states was not the only economy operating in people’s everyday lives. Even when most agricultural land in Bulgaria was consolidated and nationalised by the socialist state, many families tended small personal garden plots. These were especially common in small towns and rural areas. However, home-preserved foods that were produced in rural areas circulated far beyond their rural origins, travelling along networks of extended social relations in what anthropologist Eleanor Wenkart Smollett referred to in 1989 as “the economy of jars”.
Even though post-socialist states’ entry into neoliberal global economies in represented a rupture with the earlier centrally planned economies, many of the everyday food-related strategies, practices, and networks that developed alongside central planning continue to the present day. Home-based food preservation practices in contemporary Bulgaria emerge from long-term daily confrontation with uncertainty and precarity and exemplify resilient foodways that have allowed people to negotiate major disruptions such as the end of socialism or joining the European Union.
Another point of interest is that most of the home producers I interviewed are highly educated and have stable employment or income. They have strong familial livelihood networks that include multiple income streams such as pensions, remittances, and paid employment. This runs counter to “development” narratives that predicted that household food production would decrease with rising incomes and integration into formal markets, or that characterise domestic food production as something motivated by poverty. This is not to say that home-based food preservation is purely a leisure activity: it is an important source of nutrients and goes a long way to reduce expenditures in a context where things like utilities, prescription medications, and complex medical care are still a challenge for many households.
There are many environmental and social benefits to home-based food preservation in Bulgaria that link it with food sovereignty. Though the small-scale agricultural output that provides most of the home preservers’ ingredients is not always free of chemical inputs, these are minimised with care and expense. In some cases, keeping small animals like chickens or goats creates closed nutrient cycles. Food miles are minimised, as is food waste. Some people who make home-preserved foods are also, through their actions, ensuring the continued survival and propagation of rare varieties of plants and animals well-suited to food preservation. Preserved foods that are fermented, dried, or jarred do not require refrigeration and thus reduce energy usage. Additionally, they minimise non-reusable food packaging.
These foods, and the materials and competencies required to produce them, provide food security and resilience in the face of uncertainty. Not only do they diversify foods during the winter and provide calories: they can be converted into other resources through gift-giving, exchange, or sale. They are functional foods that can restore and preserve health and decrease dependency on expensive medicines or medical care. They preserve materials and competencies for future use. Beyond these benefits are the feelings of pride, the pleasure in familiar and valorised tastes, the ability to properly host guests and celebrations, and the connection to the familial and national heritage they provide.
Home-preserved foods in Bulgarian cellars are prized as clean and reliable alternatives to industrial food (even while sometimes utilizing industrially produced ingredients), the tastes of home and the village, functional foods that preserve and restore health, and as essential components in everyday and ritual life. Bulgarian cellars provide underappreciated examples of resilient, alternative food networks and how those might be developed in contexts where political and economic barriers to social movement-based change or marketised approaches to alternative food system development.
“Is this really that useful to you?” Vasi asks me, smirking, as we begin meticulously counting and inventorying her jars. She immediately answers her own question, “I guess it can show how one family feeds itself”. Then she reminds me, “This isn’t all the jars I made”. There’s more in the pantries of both her son and daughter, who live in their own houses. “How many do you think you made this year?” I ask. “More or less 400”, not including any alcohol. She gives about 100 jars each to her children and keeps the rest in her cellar. “It’s a little bit like living in a village house, you know? We have а a little of everything, scattered here and there, but it’s easier to live and more joyful”.
For many people worldwide, the prevailing food systems are bleak. Imagination and creativity will be critical in the struggle to develop future food systems that transcend mere sustenance toward upholding the aspirations of food sovereignty and the right to food that is desirable, healthy, meaningful, and sourced in an environmentally sound way. Bulgarian cellars inspire me to imagine beyond binaries, expand my understanding of the food politics lived out quietly in domestic spaces, and preserve my own hope for abundant and resilient food futures.
Lindsey Foltz recently completed her PhD in Anthropology, specialising in Food Studies, at the University of Oregon. She continues to write about everyday food sovereignty and engage in applied social justice work. She is currently the Associate Police Auditor for the City of Eugene, Oregon.
Title image: Preserved vegetable stew made by Tatyana Tsankova, Gabrovo Province, Bulgaria. Photo © Lindsey Foltz