Hungary’s Sweetest Memories: Socialism and the Moral Economy of Jam

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Zsofia Cassidy looks at Hungary’s moral economy of jam and the tradition of stewing fruit and vegetables kept alive by the older generations to this day.

Zsofia Cassidy looks at Hungary’s moral economy of jam and the tradition of stewing fruit and vegetables kept alive by the older generations to this day.

During the socialist period, the exchange of jars of preserved fruit between households in Hungary could be interpreted in economically rational terms as a coping strategy, a form of mutual aid between kin and friends to prepare for long winters and potential food shortages. Thriftiness and active involvement in social networks of reciprocal favours were fundamental skills for housewives, the evidence of which was materially visible in the annual stewing of fruit and vegetables into jars, to be highly stacked onto the shelves of the pantry.

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Image: Zsofia Cassidy.

My memories of Hungary stand in stark contrast to many assumptions about the greyness and homogeneity of the Eastern Bloc. From the early 90s, my family and I travelled to my grandparent’s village on the country’s eastern border for the summer, when the trees in their garden would already be dripping with bright cherries, apricots and wild plums. My grandfather would bring home enormous ripe melons to the table for us daily to devour and indeed, I often found this abundance of sweetness overwhelming, like stifling attention from a doting grandparent. Any corner of the house I retired to, I would be followed by the inevitable sound of slippers and the figure of my grandfather bringing me an old ice-cream tub overflowing with gleaming redcurrants from the garden.

At the end of our visits, we were sent back to south London with jars of lekvár, or homemade jam, carefully wrapped in newspaper by my grandmother. While my mother often protested, there was never any question about bringing it with us, and we obediently made room in our suitcases and stored them forgotten at the back of the cupboard. It was not until I conducted some more formal fieldwork last year that I began to consider why, despite the now distant fall of the Soviet Union, Hungarian women continue spend significant time and energy making lekvár and participate in its exchange between both kin and non-kin.

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Image: Zsofia Cassidy.

Across Hungary, many older generations continue to cultivate fruit and some vegetables on household plots, either in their gardens or a short drive out of town. Recalling traditional ethics of peasant self-sufficiency, production of one’s own food is associated with the construction of dignity and pride and, while some households still rely on their produce for subsistence, for most it is a leisurely, weekend activity. Annual seasons mean that at any one time a household will have an excess of one type of fruit, meaning that they may give it away to friends, sell it at market or make it into lekvár.

Growing fruit on Hungarian soil is placed in fierce opposition to imported goods, particularly those bought at the supermarket, reflecting a broader current of nationalist sentiment in an increasingly globalized Europe. The local open-air market, for example, is separated into Hungarian and non-Hungarian areas, and all the women I spoke to refused to buy anything non-Hungarian. Following my elderly friend, Julia, on her weekly shop, I noticed that the market was as much about the face-to-face interaction and affirmation of relationships through idle talking and recipe swapping, as about finding the best value Hungarian produce.

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Image: Zsofia Cassidy.

Having grown or bought the fruit for lekvár, it is then stewed for around 6 hours with sugar before placing it into jars and slowly cooled, after which it can be stored for many years. Children tend to be the main recipient of lekvár, and indeed many women found themselves starting to make it after the birth of their first child, an unselfconscious, almost natural progression. Rejecting the preservative-filled jams and sweets found in supermarkets, mothers feed their children sweet, homemade lekvár spread onto pancakes, stirred into yoghurts, or sticking between pastries.

Having visited the kitchens of many housewives, lekvár was ubiquitous to some extent in almost all of the households. On a couple of occasions, I was offered some on arrival in a small bowl with a spoon, a gesture which I considered a welcoming acknowledgement that I was to be treated like kin. The exchange of lekvár was not confined to the mother/child relationship, but flowed amongst non-kin too, an affirmative substance of new relationships. Eszter, an elderly lady with no children, complained that she could never make lekvár, further suggesting the strong relationship between lekvár-making and the reproductive cycle. Every year, however, she tried to improve her lekvár again, in order to share it amongst her close group of girlfriends, who brought her jars filled with their own recipes in return.

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Image: Zsofia Cassidy.

The exchange of lekvár in Hungary today thus means much more than the utilitarian provisioning so valued in the socialist era’s economy of jars. In an increasingly globalized world, in which families are separated by borders and supermarkets offer only alienating food commodities, my grandparents give us lekvár as the epitome of a nourishing substance, made from pure Hungarian produce and transformed into a sweet and sticky liquid by their cooperative labour. Significantly, it is the jarring of this viscous jam that allows it to be transported back to London, resulting in lekvár’s ability to do things, namely to affirm and invigorate the flow of reproductive substance across generations of migrants.

As illustrated by Eszter’s case, however, this flow is not limited to kin, but connects non-kin too, helping to maintain ties horizontally and not just vertically through generations. This is why, she explains, lekvár is a much better gift than chocolate or flowers, because the memory of the person who made it will endure in the mind of the recipient. Needless to say, my grandparent’s jars of lekvár at the back of our cupboards have recently been found and opened.

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