Preserving Socialism: The Canning Industry in Socialist Bulgaria

Nadezhda Galabova

From “you are what you eat” (Brillat- Savarin) to “you are where you eat” (Hahne), food researchers have been interested in the connection between food and cultural identity. Nowadays the statement that our food choices do not simply meet biological needs but are strongly influenced by the web of meanings our culture provides for us comes as no surprise. The preparation, distribution and consumption of food can tell us a lot about the modes through which a particular society constructs and experiences everyday reality (and how it relates to the sacred and the transcendental).
What some researchers seem to ignore, however, is the fact that, apart from being a culturally structured system of signs and symbols, food work is also intricately connected to power, economy and politics. The study of food practices and technologies (what we eat and how we prepare it) can shed light on the stratifications and differences in a society – how political control is exercised (or contested), how a hegemonic culture is reproduced (or subverted) and how social order is imposed (or undermined).
The vantage point of this paper is the assumption that (food) technologies materialize social relationships and objectify meanings and values. The power to produce (or preserve) certain foods and deem them valuable and trustworthy is the power to control the material context of a society and to shape human identities. Therefore, rather than perceiving new food technologies as purely scientific achievements, we should study them in their complexity – as bundles of relationships and power games, as instruments for imposition of political control and social order.
In order to develop this argument the paper will study the development of the canning industry in socialist Bulgaria. First, it will start by examining the official documents (party congress resolutions, scientific journals, as well as brochures and articles in women’s magazines) with which the socialist state propagated the need for a nationalized and centralized canning industry in Bulgaria. Special attention will be paid to the legitimating discourse the authorities deployed to promote the consumption of industrially produced canned food: the focus on the time-saving and health-promoting aspects.
Secondly, the essay will trace the difficulties that the state experienced in its attempts to modernize the production of canned food, the strategies it used to conceal its failures and the effects of all this on the market and consumers. Here the sources that will be used are articles from specialised journals, newspapers of canning factories and complaints of ordinary consumers.
Finally, the paper will conclude that although officially canning came to symbolize communism itself – availability of “fresh” and healthy food for anybody at any time, imperviousness to seasonal and temporal contingencies – ordinary people rarely purchased (and in reality, could hardly ever find on the market) industrially produced canned foods. Instead, they relied on their domestic produce and on more traditional techniques for preserving food. Although people’s everyday strategies of coping with the shortages of Bulgarian state socialism can hardly be interpreted as a form of conscious resistance, they do tell us a lot about the inconsistency of the regime and its failure to impose (through food technologies among other techniques) an all-encompassing and homogenizing rhythm of living among Bulgarian citizens. The canning industry of socialist Bulgaria never managed to preserve communism.