3rd place creative non-fiction: State Controlled Paprika

“State controlled paprika.”

I’m having a sarcastic moment with a tin, the colour of robin’s egg blue. I’m enamoured with this rectangular container, its edges rounded, its paint worn and its body slightly dented. I clutch the tin and feel something unexplainable. Under its smooth folk art exterior, outside of its practicality, and under its lid, lives a dirty history. “Minöséget a dolgozóknak. Yeah, right,” I’m still talking to myself. “Füszerétékesitő Nemzeti Vállalat.”

“Are you going to share the joke?” my husband asks.

“Look at this!” I shove the tin in his face. “Do you see what this says?”

“No!” he says jerking his head back. “I can’t read it if you hold it an inch from my face.”

“Sorry,” I answer. “I just get so pissed off sometimes.”

“I didn’t notice,” he says. “That’s a nice tin. What does it say?” Ken grabs the tin and tries to pronounce what I had just read. “Foozere-”

“Don’t even try.” I snatch it back. The word has fifteen letters in it and even I can’t say it easily.

“Look at this lovely red paprika. It looks hand-painted.” I turn the tin in my hand. “And there’s one on the other side, too. And look! A pot of chicken paprikás with noodles.

There’s even a drumstick!” I’m beside myself.

The drawings on the tin are simple in their execution and yet charming. Even more charming, is the pretty young woman dressed in traditional Hungarian attire. She wears a full pleated skirt, a hand-embroidered apron, a kerchief on her head and red slippers on her feet. This pretty woman lovingly tends a large caldron of red broth suspended by a stick over an open fire.

Budapest. We’re in a small, crammed antique shop with a spiral staircase leading up to an overflowing second floor, its wares spilling down to ground level.

“Feel free to go up,” says the middle-aged owner. He’s friendly, unlike the sullen, rude shop attendants I’m used to from my visits to Hungary in the seventies as a child.

“I will.” I smile shyly as I search for the price on the tin.

“It’s from the late nineteen forties,” says the owner offhandedly from under his glasses.
4,800 forints. I’m astonished. Almost twenty-five dollars and not a speck of paprika in it. The average Hungarian worker today earns only five dollars an hour. I remember as a child how cheap everything seemed to my mother and I when we converted our Canadian dollars for forints and headed out shopping to stock up on everything from leather gloves to aluminum pressure cookers, our relatives painfully aware of their meager currency and our ability to buy all we needed.

My mother alone packed our suitcases full for the return trip to Canada. Each day, stuffing one more item into suitcases already bursting at the seams. Another bag of Szegedi paprika, another 50 decagrams of ground poppy seeds, five more wooden spoons, the almost forgotten noodle cutters and another length of spicy sausage. Nervously, the entire family–my mother, my aunts, my cousins and I balanced our suitcases on the bathroom scale. And once we took our hands off the handle in order to get an accurate reading, the suitcase would at first quiver, then wobble like a watermelon and then quickly fall off making it nearly impossible to read the needle on the scale in time.

“Did you see what it said?”

“Twenty-six kilos.”

“It looked like twenty-seven.”

“Twenty-six and a half.”

“Take something out.”

“I’m not taking anything out!” my mother insisted, while the rest of us stressed over airline regulations. Everything in the socialist world was stringently controlled and transgressions readily punished. But for my mother everything in the suitcase was precious. These things were bits and pieces of a life she had left behind.

Still clutching the tin, I inspect old Soviet memorabilia and whisper to Ken, “These are western prices. What is he thinking?” I feel ashamed of my remark. As though ‘he’, meaning the shop owner, should be keeping the prices low for my sake. I had hoped to snag some great deals, to fill my suitcase full again but at these prices I have to choose carefully. Why do I think that Hungarians in this new economy are not entitled to eke out a living from my desire to pillage their past?

On the lid is the evidence of the crimes of Communism. A clue to the changes my mother described that took place after the Soviets secured post-war Hungary. There is a drawing of three men, lined up perfectly, their bodies in slight profile. They look in the same direction. Presumably to the future. One is a worker, with the famous Soviet hammer flung over his right shoulder. The middle man, in all probability, is the foreman. And I’m guessing the man on the right, wearing a suit and spectacles with a folder tucked under his arm, handles the accounts. Collectively, they hold the Hungarian coat of arms. In the background are factories with smoldering smoke stacks. Underneath is the caption that halted me when I first picked up the tin.

“Minöséget a dolgozóknak.”

“So … are you going to tell me what it means?” asks Ken.

“Quality for the workers. State inspected paprika. To Make Valuable Spices National Company.” My initial tone of sarcasm is sparked by my mother’s insistence that the quality of everything deteriorated with the installation of a Soviet satellite government. Quality of life eluded all but official party members who drove sleek, black luxury vehicles, the interiors of which where upholstered floor-to-ceiling with crushed red velvet. The state meticulously inspected everything, from a person’s thoughts, to their mail. So why would anyone be relieved to know that even their paprika was state inspected?

Shepherds and horsemen had been using the pungent plant to spice their stews since the invasion of the Turks in the 1600s. By the 19th century paprika was a symbol of national pride. In 1937, Szent-Györgyi Albert won a Nobel Prize for his discovery that paprika was unusually rich in vitamin C. So for what reason, I ask, would the Soviets need to establish a state-run company ‘To Make Valuable Spices National’? Did no one know how to inspect, let alone grow paprika in this country before the arrival of the Soviets?

Whenever I discover examples of Communist domination I become my mother: bitter, belligerent and bound. My mind becomes obsessive and I see an ugly past when I look in the mirror. I wince at my down-turned mouth and re-live the sensations she experienced. I wonder just how much disdain for the Soviets I inherited by consuming vast amounts of state inspected paprika?

I want to put the tin back on the shelf. I feel as though I would betray my mother by buying it. But the paprikas are alluring on the blue background. A simple, simple paprika tin, exploited and manipulated to infiltrate the kitchens of the population. Each day, people were force-fed a new identity. They swallowed the lies by the spoonful, their guts bloated. The paprika that once nourished them, was now poisoned. Poisoned by a regime that intended to destroy their psyches slowly over time. It hails from the time before the red star began appearing on the Hungarian coat of arms, when the Soviets were just learning how to brainwash the population. This tin is a relic, a testament to the moment before everything turned really ugly in Hungary.

This tin was just the beginning.

But worse was still to come.

I want this dented, blue tin because it substantiates my mother’s stories of how wretched life was under Communism. If I can learn, then I can mitigate my guilt for having been blessed with a life of opportunity and abundance. And when she says to me, “They were trying to turn us into them. But we would never be them.” I can answer, “I understand mother. I wish you’d never had to live through that.”

I take the tin to the counter and start to bargain and when I shave off a few hundred forints, I hand over my money.

“How’s business?” I ask in Hungarian.

“You are not from here,” says the owner.

“No, I was born in Canada,” I answer apologetically.

“You have opportunities in Canada,” he says.

“It’s a good country. But Hungary’s great, too.”

“I’ll tell you,” he says. “Before we could eat, but we couldn’t talk. Now we can talk, but we can’t eat.”

My childhood memories are in grey tones, like a black-and-white from the early 1960s. The people, the buildings, the sky, the entire landscape. The only colour I remember is the bright yellow of the number two tram, that still hugs the Danube today. In those days, the tram was appointed with sullen ticket inspectors wearing dull, spiritless uniforms, working dull, spiritless jobs and going home to dull, spiritless concrete apartments.

Now, instead of grey crumbling buildings wounded by bullet holes, I see colour for the first time in Budapest. I hear people talking freely on the streets, in their homes and in the shops. But I realize now that even Hungarians are paying western prices while earning Eastern Bloc wages.

“We still don’t know what we’re doing.” The owner wraps my tin in newspaper.

“This has to be better than what you had before,” I say gently.

“It’ll never be better in my time.” He hands me my parcel. “Thank you for visiting my shop. Please come again.”

I take the parcel and tuck it in my bag. It finds its way into my suitcase. Protectively wrapped in a towel, the tin comes home to Canada. It finds a resting place on the kitchen counter where, like in a museum, it’s admired by visitors.

I call my mother for what must be the tenth time in the past five years to ask for her gulyás recipe. I could have written it down by now, but I want her to tell me again from the beginning. “How many tablespoons of paprika?” I ask.

I want her to know how much it means to me to get it just right. I get it right for her. At eighty-one her fingers are gnarled and her heart squeezes her chest. But she’s still beautiful. And battered. Like the blue tin.

Rita Bozi has publications in WritingRaw.com, Pages of Stories, FFWD Weekly and has contributed to CBC Radio. She is writing Uprising, a memoir and Hungry, High and Hammered, a short story collection. This past summer she attended The Humber School for Writers. Her co-written play 52 Pick Up, was recently translated into Icelandic.