Joint illustrated article series by the Capa Centre and Fortepan
2022. April 27.
The “Modern” Diet
How the Socialist Food Industry Reformed Everyday Life in Hungary
The second half of the 20th century saw major changes in food consumption throughout the world: new types of ready and ready-to-cook meals, frozen and canned goods appeared on the shelves transforming daily life and our daily routines. While in the West, these new technologies boosted the lucrative character of food production and food commerce, in the Eastern Block the innovations were praised as bringing the promise of a flawless and perfectly planned socialist economy and of a standardized daily life. These revolutionary changes in the food industry indeed had an impact on everyday life: self-service canteens and self-service shops opened, including a chain of fully automated grocery stores called Közért. New types of household appliances appeared in homes, while pantries almost completely disappeared and kitchens shrunk to a minimum size. While some of the new features introduced back in those days are so common sense today that we could not even imagine our lives without them, some turned out to be a dead end.
People living on temperate climate had long been using different techniques of preservation, otherwise they would not have had any food to eat during wintertime and in the first months of spring. They had dried, cooked, fermented, dehydrated, and smoked all sorts of fruits, vegetables, and meats for ages, though preferred to use fresh ingredients whenever they could. Even city-dwellers, who could only obtain the ingredients by purchasing them at the market, canned food for the winter. Meat, except for that of larger animals not suitable for a single round of preparation, was “preserved” on two-or four legs, or “alive.” If a chicken was not sold and eaten one day, it could be sold the next day without any problem this way. A butchered one would have been more problematic. In the workers’ and railway colonies built at the turn of the 20th century, the design of standard apartments in many cases contained a standard pen as well, thus everyone could keep some livestock and poultry. Curiously, the commerce of live animals is somewhat present still to this day, in the age of shopping malls, though we can only buy live fish in superstores.
Changes in the food industry in the second half of the 20th century were prompted by technological innovations. Tin canning was conceived as early as the end of the 18th century, but it was only used by the military, as food provision for soldiers would not have been possible without preserved goods. Closing food in airtight containers was the easier part of the process, but (re)opening them turned out to be problematic for a long time.
Originally, tin cans had a rather thick wall and people tried to open them with chisels and hammers, or with bayonettes, knifes, or sometimes even by gunshots on the frontline. As a matter of fact, these opening techniques were as dangerous as the tin-lead alloy that was often used to seal the canisters. The 19th century was thus dedicated to the refinement of the tin can opening mechanism and saw various solutions for the problem. Today, we can almost exclusively find tins with pull tabs or ones that easily open with can openers. But a few decades earlier, almost all kitchen drawers contained a “sardine can key”, which was used to roll back the lid of the tin, starting at its small overlapping flap.
The First Hungarian Canning and Steelwork Factory in Kőbánya (Budapest) was founded as early as 1882. The company belonged to the famous industrialist family Weiss and mostly produced canned meat and coffee for the army. In the beginning, it produced canned fruits and vegetables and soup concentrates in smaller quantities only, but later on, this line of the business gained higher importance. In 1924, this line of products was labeled/baptized with the brand name Glóbusz. The brand name has not only survived the nationalization of the factory after World War II but turned into an emblematic brand in the Socialist era.
Another important change was brought by the advent of the refrigerator and the freezer in everyday homes. The technology of refrigeration was developed around the same time as canning; it dates back to around two hundred years. However, it has become widespread enough only in the 20th century to have a lasting impact on food production and commerce. The first cold store in Hungary was built as early as the first half of the 20th century and the production of frozen goods started also before World War I. In 1947, The company Mezőgazdasági Ipar Rt (Agricultural Industry Company, short version: MIR) launched its frozen food label MIR Elite, which later turned into “Mirelite.” The brand gained such popularity that “mirelit” became the synonym of frozen products.
The production of the first refrigerator models designed for households started in the 1910s and 1920s and in the 1930s, freezer chests also appeared on the market. Though bearing a seemingly innocent name, the “Factory of Metal and Tinplate Products” (Fémnyomó és Lemezárugyár) actually produced shells. However, after launching its first refrigerator model based on its own design in the 1950s, the factory’s output gradually shifted to the production of refrigerators under the brand name “Lehel.” Apart from these, refrigerators from the Soviet brand “Szaratov” became the most widespread in households. The latter even made it into a popular children’s book by Ervin Lázár.
Apart from bringing a new level of comfort to everyday life and cost-effectiveness to the food industry, canning and refrigreation also revolutionized the way people ate/food consumption. Until the 1980s, Hungary had not imported fruits and vegetables on a large scale, except for the ones referred to as “southern” produce, that is, lemon, orange, and bananas, basically. These were neither luxury items nor average staples: most people drank their tea with lemon substitute.
Thanks to the advent of canned and frozen goods, summer produce became available in the winter and both household and store supply management became less complicated and easier to plan. More and more ready meals became available and it was easier to fill supermarket and storage shelves with cans than with fresh produce with a shorter shelf-life. The look of traditional grocery stores started to transform. For the modern eye, the view of a Socialist-era grocery store (népbolt) jam-packed with cans and bottles is rather strange. The same old form but the content is new.
While in the case of a butcher’s or a greengrocer’s, it indeed made sense to have a counter and a clerk to measure and pack the produce, in the case of tins it was totally unnecessary. Everything came in portions and packed. The time of self-service stores has come. Today, most grocery shops work this way: we put the items we would like to in our baskets (since the 1989 regime change, more likely into our cart) and we pay at the cashier. Back in 1960, this excitingly novel process was advertised on a showcase at the National Agricultural and Food Industry Fair. Not only canned and preserved goods but serve-over counters, open refrigerator bins containing dairy and “prepackaged meat products” were showcased as well.
With the success of self-service stores the modernizers of commerce gained momentum. What if we totally automated grocery stores? Coffee-, soft drink-, and snack and candy machines are present to this day, but the same concept was also applied to other types of products such as refrigerated pastry, bread, and many more. Cigarettes were also available from such machines until they fell under more strict regulations. Even completely automated Közért grocery shops opened, but it did not turn out to be a successful model.
In retrospect, it is interesting to see that another concept that was developed back then without immediate success turns out to be successful today, half a decade later. According to the photos of the era, the Közért chain tried to implement a home-delivery service as well. Before the internet, this concept could not work out yet.
Aside from its impact on commerce, the modernization of the food industry had implications for housing too. The Socialist family model was based on two income earners. During the day, children participated in mass catering, they ate at the kindergarden or school canteen, and the parents also had lunch at workplace canteens. The importance of home cooking dropped.
The large-panel-system buildings of housing estates were planned according to the expectation that modern apartments would not need pantries because there would be no need to accumulate large stocks given the fact that grocery stores would have constant supply. Also, refrigerators would take up the fresh produce and tins could be stored in the kitchen cabinet. There would hardly be any need for a kitchen even! Ready meals and ready-to-cook meals need no cooking only heating, so building larger kitchens would be a waste of precious real estate.
As a matter of fact, the standards of central planning were hard to reconciliate with real life. It turned out not everyone lived the way clerks at Socialist central planning offices imagined; a pantry was still needed even if pig slaughters did not take place at home any longer; and it is not a waste of precious real estate if a kitchen is spaceous enough to fit comfortably more than one person at a time or let alone a breadboard.
In the Socialist era, it seemed that the innovations of the food industry would change our lives. They did so, though not the way it was expected.