In the late 1980s I was still living in my native city of Sofia, blissfully unaware of the impending end of Zhivkov’s regime under which my life had evolved up until then and of the subsequent cosmopolitan émigré life that was in store for me. One day, friends came to talk about a text that was exposing Bulgaria’s “economy of jars.” There was some element of embarrassment in this -- we had been “found out” about a practice that was far too common and that we did not give much thought of. The author was a Western woman who had written about the habit of Bulgarians who would visit with her to bring along jars of self-preserved food and leave them as gifts. This was so persistent that over time she had built up surplus and had started taking jars to other friends herself. Thus, she had become part of Bulgaria’s “economy of jars,” one of us.
I never read the text at the time, so rudimentary was my English, so all I knew about it probably came from conversations. Today I can confirm that this was a study by Canadian anthropologist Eleanor Smollett, whose 1989 text “Economy of Jars” was published in Ethnologia Europea and is now available online. Smollett was wondering “what could be learned about contemporary Bulgarian society by tracing the movements of the thousands, nay millions, of jars of food that criss-cross the country? Who gives what kind and how many to whom on what kinds of occasions? What statements about relationships are built into these gifts? How much importance do these jars (and other gifts of food) have in the quantity and quality of a family's food consumption?” (1989: 127). ... More