Food enthusiasts are rarely living in the present. Whether it’s modernist cuisine or nostalgia for days gone by, we are either looking forward or longing for the past, whether we were there or not. Typically, I experience the latter. I love the innovative and contemporary possibilities in culinary arts (look at this Kitchen of the Future!) but can’t help entertaining the satisfying and reassuring feeling I get from simple, cheap and comforting food. I’m only slightly a history buff, but really do love it, especially when it comes to food and dinning. However seemingly incidental, food acts as a prime reflector of a culture’s style, attitude and intent at most anytime in history.
One such cultural anchor exists in the form of the Bars Mleczny of Poland. Literally meaning “dairy bar”, a Bar Mleczny is an inexpensive canteen-style restaurant that serves milk-based meals, vegetarian snacks and Polish classics. Although the first milk bar of this type opened in Warsaw in 1896, their cultural significance swelled after the First World War and into the Soviet-controlled depression of the 1930’s where one could find a Bar Mleczny in any Polish city.
Food at the Bar Mleczny was (and still is) very cheap, satisfying and nutritional, benefiting from government subsidies that put the price point incredibly low. Pierogies, soups and pancakes scatter black and white marquee menus on the walls of these bars. Popular with the working class, pensioners and students, Milk Bars were a staple of for-the-people dining in Poland and seemed as accessible as your own kitchen.
Today, far fewer dairies remain in the Eastern Bloc than during the communist era, replaced by more updated restaurants, corporately owned and otherwise. Students, activists and preservationists interested safeguarding these bars hope to sustain a relic of history that reminds them of home.
There seems to be an alternative to forgetting the past to make way for the future. It also takes some effort. Needless to say, there's no problem with looking forward, it begets incredible things, but be sure to go to that classic greasy spoon in Manhattan, support your favorite taco truck or consider flying to Wrocław for some delicious potatoes, buckwheat and a piece of history before it's too late.