© Theron LaBounty

Matters of taste: Parcels of food and guilt

A curious delightful phenomenon that spans Romanian histories and culture, bridging time and place, family and nation, countryside and city: the parental food package
December 11, 2014

I went to Bucharest recently. Take various epochs and architectures, mix well. Beaux arts swags, Romanesque arches, blue and yellow Turkish tiled pediments, fallen-down Russiany villas, giant Lego sets of concrete grey communist blocks. Here I discovered a curious delightful phenomenon that spans Romanian histories and culture, bridging time and place, family and nation, countryside and city: the parental food package.

There is a widely-held belief, half true, that food is expensive and of poor quality in Bucharest. So when a child leaves their home town to go to university in the big city their parents send them regular parcels of food. These are transported to Bucharest by means of train conductor, who distributes his packages ad hoc at the station. This is not legally permitted (a small tip is involved) but it is widespread.

This arrangement often continues long after the students have their own jobs and salaries and kitchens. I met one of the new generation, a bright professional 20-something, a Balkan beauty with a roses and cream complexion. “A” didn’t want me to use her real name, because she was rather abashed at still receiving food packages. “My mother sends so much food!” she exclaimed. “A tremendous amount of food! Zakouska, [a Romanian staple, a kind of sludgy ratatouille] or meatballs. She used to make classical meatballs with chicken and pork and parsley and potato and I would complain that they were too greasy, so then she tried to make them with quinoa but she couldn’t get the taste right... but finally she made one with crumbly white cheese and carrots and she bakes them in the oven so they’re more healthy. Sometimes if she is feeling extravagant she makes the balls out of fish. I love schnitzel which she also sends, because you can make a sandwich and eat it while running.”

A’s mother is an engineer but she is also a passionate baker. “I get lots of cookies—not the traditional kind; my mother’s have layers and jam, she invents them. And pickles, this is something I get in the cold season—cauliflower and celery and white cabbage. We eat them with sausages, homemade... What else does she make? Stuffed vine leaves with meat and rice, which we call sarmale. And a crumbled cheese mixed with tomatoes and herbs... Yoghurt and grapes and fruit of all kinds. It’s usually two bags, many kilos. It’s heavy.”

“A” was embarrassed that, despite living an independent life, she had not yet severed this umbilical connection. “I feel guilty because I can afford to buy food now... but this way my mother feels she has an important role in my life. My father too... I told them once that I don’t need the packages anymore and they were very offended, as if I didn’t need them anymore. When we talk on the phone they ask, ‘how are you and what have you eaten?’”

One lunchtime I was sitting in my favourite restaurant, Papa La oni, with a group of young cool journalists. I told them about “A” and the following conversation ensued; every one of them admitted they got packages too.

“Every time I go to my parent’s there is this negotiation: please don’t send me back with all that food, no just take this, OK, just that.”

“The only way I could stop my mother packing food in my suitcase when I went back to Boston was to tell her I would get arrested. She kept saying, ‘oh look you have room still—’ I told her, ‘Mum I can’t take zakouska to America.”

“They say: ‘what is that store bought crap you are eating? You are starving in the city!’”

“It’s love.”

“Its partly love and its partly guilt and partly manipulation.”

“Yup that’s how we do relationships in Romania; through food and guilt.”

I was in Romania to write about orphanages, staying with my friend Ramona. I came home one evening after a day of small kids in big institutions, exhausted and emotionally drained. Ramona had recently split with her boyfriend and was going to a funeral the next day. She is in her mid-thirties. “Of course my mother still sends me packages from time to time. I pretend that I don’t like it, but days like this I am really grateful.” With snow beginning to fall outside, we slurped bowls of her mother’s delicious noodley meat and vegetable soup, hot and restorative, and ate dried plums sent by her grandmother for dessert.