Rebellious Cooks:

The practical and hedonistic powers of Recipes in Late Communist Bulgaria

PhD Thesis Abstract
Prof. Peter Scholliers, VUB
Prof. Yves Segers, KUL
Date of defence: 12 October 2017

The full text of the thesis
is available in Lirias or contact me for a copy

In communist Bulgaria many women passionately exchanged recipes. They traded cookery instructions on their working places, on a party, in the tram, on a queue or on the phone, with relatives and friends or with people just met, whom they’d never see again, and built formidable private collections of recipes. This activity took place amidst general disapproval of home cooking by the dominant ideology for liberation of women from what Marx and Lenin saw as household slavery, but also within a persistent patriarchal family arrangement, pushing women in the role of familial cooks.    


This doctorate thesis established that the private collections, obtained via such exchange, were the primary written source for recipes in communist Bulgaria. The cookbooks from the period, brought out exclusively by state-run publishing houses, were by far less used. The research also suggested that this situation seems to be specific for communist Bulgaria, and possibly for the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe.

    Having proved the extraordinary importance of the recipe exchange, the dissertation investigated the meanings of this popular practice. It enquired how women negotiated their choices around one of their most basic everyday life routines – home cooking, in the highly contested field of their home kitchens.

    Following a model, inspired by an early work of U.S. anthropologist Bateson, the dissertation mapped and constructed a multi-faceted analysis of the meanings, invested in home cooking and recipe exchange. The source material, which included 24 cookery scrapbooks and interviews with their authors, was considered from a set of perspectives. From a structural point of view, this work examined how women negotiated their foodways with the existing social context; from an economic angle, it offered an insight into how recipe exchange enhanced home cooking within the specific economic circumstances; from social perspective it evaluated how the exchange and cooking helped the narrators to relate with and consolidate their social group. Eventually the affective aspect traced the emotions, which were involved in the social practice of exchanging/collecting recipes.

    The material was used in a dialogue: the written sources were used to cross-check, clarify and nuance the content and the interpretation of the oral ones. A broad range of other primary sources was exploited to construct the context: media publications from the period, statistics and visual material.

    The insights, obtained from the different levels of analysis, were brought together to show that besides being an economically sensible way of sustenance, home cooking delivered a powerful combination of incentives. It answered simultaneously the three innate psychological needs, motivating humans: the need of competence, of autonomy and of relatedness (as defined by Deci and Ryan, 2000:27). The knot of meanings, which it provided, was unchallenged within the specific context, in which none of the above-mentioned needs was usually well addressed in other fields of women’s social and familial life.

    A central question in this research was to what extent (if any) resistance could be identified in the narrators’ reasoning. The collected material suggested that part of the satisfaction stemmed from the ‘micro-rebellions’ that home cooking contained. Many narrators did see elements of their foodways as a micro-resistance and did have practices, of which they thought as opposing the official political and ideological discourse. Some narratives implied that not only practical, but also political notions were implicated in the negotiation of individual foodways, related to the use of time, the hierarchy of culinary information sources, the perception of freedom and stimulation of creativity in the kitchen. None of these acts was planned as subversive, but they were often understood as noncompliance.

    The research also identified another, unforeseen in the initial hypothesis kind of micro-resistance. It found that many women opposed not (only) the ideology of practices of the communist regime, but the consequences of its modernisation project, which resulted in the mass employment of the female population. The loss of the old lifestyle was resented and having more time for the household became to be seen as a privilege by some of the women.

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