The Rebellious Cookbook: Writing Recipes as an Act of Resistance in Communist Bulgaria.

Albena Shkodrova

The phenomenon of this vigorous individualisation of culinary literature - in the context of a communist regime, which defined as an early goal to liberate women from their “slavery in front of the stoves” (Hadzinikolov, 1970),  - is enigmatic in many aspects. 

Why women in communist Bulgaria were so active in writing down recipes, while the regime consistently tried to steer them away from cooking?

Why were their social contacts so occupied with exchange of recipes - sometimes even entirely based on it or being exhausted by it?

Why, while undermining the expertise of the official cookbooks by editing them, women reverently respected the authority of their private recipe sources? As evidence suggests, many private notes, notebooks and cookbooks meticulously credit the persons, from whom the recipes were obtained… 

Why, on the other hand, this intensive rewriting of culinary literature did not bring actual creative cuisine: the reworking of cookbooks was limited to reproduction of recipes from other sources, and almost never brought to the creation of new recipes?

Even though all these questions may seem running in different direction, their answers could be sought in one and the same place: in the controversies between the officially promoted social system, as encoded in the state culinary literature, its real, and its desired nature – three different versions of the same domain, where public and private life intersect with ideology, politics, culture, economy. 

By shedding light on these controversies, the proposed study will contribute to the understanding of how societies under totalitarian regimes function.

By using cookbooks – these codified expression of national cuisine, - as a key to examine political system and society, this research will on the one hand fall in the contemporary trends in food studies, which gradually acknowledge the value of culinary texts as an important source of historical information. On the other it will offer an innovative key to access the understudied domain of Eastern-European communist regimes, where comparable historical developments took place between late 40s and early 90s of the XX century, and of the Bulgarian one in particular. It will also contribute to the preservation of uncollected historical material.

The proposed research will try to capture the social meaning of private culinary cookbooks, created by Bulgarian women under communism. It will study the hand made collections and books of recipes as an attempt to correct the social systems, encoded in the official culinary literature.

Starting from the notion of cuisine as a concise expression of social circumstances in all their complexity, including “social and political organization, ideology and the circumstances of history and encounters with other cultures” (Gillian Crowther, 2013), the research will examine the motivation behind private attempts to correct it.

The research will seek to identify the opposition between private and formal cookbooks on multiple levels: as a silent argument over the ideal woman image (Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, 1987, Archer, 2008), over promoted ideological virtues (Davis, 2011), over the denial of system’s economic deficiencies (Notaker, 2008), or over right to private choices.