Jonas Palys, a Žaliakalnis resident, is one of those people who are trying to go home every day on a different route. He also likes to explore the environment as if through a magnifying glass. You can never know where you’ll find an interesting detail to complement some collection with, right?. If you’ve read the previous issue of Kaunas Full of Culture and an interview in it with the owner of an antique shop, Kęstutis Zenonas Šafranavičius, then you can view this interview as a second episode of the series about collectors. Will there be a sequel?!
Jonas is a historian interested in what he refers to as kaunistics (anything about Kaunas). During his studies, he lived in a student dormitory and like many students who are suddenly left without mom’s dishes, started experimenting in the kitchen. Unfortunately, his experiments were soon discontinued by peers because cuisine was not Jonas’ strongest suit. So, he was given the task of peeling potatoes.
He doesn’t cook to this day. And why should he? There are plenty of places in Kaunas that provide the food Jonas likes. And not just some places, but canteens! Jonas has visited currently functioning canteens and many that have already been closed, multiple times. And not only in Kaunas – our hero’s job is such that he often travels around Lithuania.
What’s a canteen? You drink coffee in the cafe, at the restaurant you order from a menu, someone serves you, and in the canteen – you eat. You eat quickly, simply and cheaply. You come, you take a tray, point to what you’d like to eat, you pay, go to the table, eat, nod to a person next to you, drink your compote and take your empty plates away.
Of course, public catering existed in the interwar period (a few of them were vegetarian!), but not as much as during the Soviet occupation, when in the process of industrialisation canteens were established even in the most remote of villages, collective farms and factories. So, the person could get full faster and run back to work. “As if the village was being artificially brought closer to the city”, believes Jonas. He is not at all surprised that after the restoration of independence and returning to the market economy, such places soon closed. Thanks to this massive planning, naturally, the dishes were very similar everywhere because the cooks studied in the same technical colleges and the recipes were provided by the government. And, regarding products, there was not much to choose from.
Most canteens in Kaunas today are private. Even those that don’t look like it. And they don’t look like it because employees are not changing that frequently. School and university canteens are also private. The times of the so-called “departmental” canteens – when workers are employed at the company itself – have already passed. One of the last ones was located in Kauno Švara (waste management firm) in Statybininkų Street. There is a canteen there, but it’s already a private business. A lovely, closed canteen is located in Kauno Pienas (dairy company). The prices there don’t bite – you can lunch there for only 2 euros and drink an infinite amount of kefir and yoghurt. Also, a ceramic panel interior was preserved there even after the renovation! However, if you wish to visit this dairy paradise, you must obtain a permit. “But I have no idea how”, saddens the photographer Jonas.
As a historian, he mourns the permanently destroyed interiors that weren’t evaluated on time. “Unfortunately, there are some canteens that I’ve visited but didn’t take a picture, or the photos were lost, for example, Dirbtinio Pluošto or Freda furniture factory canteens.”
It’s hard to say which canteen is the oldest in Kaunas, but the one near Soboras, in Laisvės Avenue that everyone knows best has been operating since 1961. We were told this during our lunch with Jonas there by, presumably, the oldest canteen employee.
“See this blue painting there? During the renovation they removed it. I asked if they will return it and they did,” Jonas keeps track of all the details. It’s a copy of Arvydas Pakeliūnas woodcut Perkūno Namas (1967). There are several hundreds of them. “My parents have one, and I bought one for myself too.”
His favourite canteen is located at Kauno Energoremontas company, in Chemijos Street. In the past, it was necessary to go through the common entrance of the company and to obtain a permit, but now the canteen is separated. It is owned by a family who has one more canteen in the industrial area. “I find food in Energoremontas tastier and cheaper. In the end, Laisvės Avenue has its added value, and in Energoremontas I would pay, probably, a euro less than here for what I eat.” About prices: Jonas was lucky enough to lunch for 70 cents in Zarasai, but he had to eat twice because the meatballs were tiny – for pupils.
“For me, canteen food is simply tastier. It’s soft as if someone had already chewed it once. It’s tasty because it’s simple. The worst thing is when they try to imitate good food and hire a restaurant-level chef. Why would you do that?” asks Jonas. His wife, on the other hand, rarely accompanies him. “Once I had taken her to Joniškis. We were having lunch, and she laughed all the time because she had never seen cepelinas (potato dumpling) in the shape of žemaičių blynai (potato pancakes with meat) – maybe because we were close to the Latvian border?”
And now let’s talk about favourites. Jonas never eats liver because he just doesn’t like it. Žemaičių blynai (potato pancakes with meat) taste best in Laisvės Avenue canteen. All meat dishes and sauces are best at the Kauno Energoremontas. It’s best when the garnish is simple - carrots, cabbages. The canteen classics. A compote is a must for Jonas, and it’s not good when they make it out of syrup. Is jelly still the favourite dessert in canteens? Our respondent doesn’t eat it but remembers the wobbly sweets well.
The tastiest potato dishes are in Europos Avenue, in one of the potato peeling places. Say what? It turns out that the staff of the restaurants located in the centre and the Old Town are not peeling potatoes themselves because it’s a very messy process and there’s no room for special machines. Therefore, such places buy the already peeled potatoes from the peeling plants. The same canteen serves wonderful vėdarai (intestine sausage filled with potato)! “There’s only one problem – they play Russian music.”
The sloppiness of the canteen can be identified by the taste of its borscht because it is very easy to make. If you overboil it, it becomes brown. That means that the cook is useless. You can also rate it based on the herring – if it’s slushy, then it means it’s old and bad. Despite that Jonas only got poisoned once and not in the traditional canteen but one of the commercial chain restaurants.
“I recently ate an egg for lunch, but only because it was placed on the plate produced in the Soviet times. I thought that it’s possible that I don’t have it in my collection!” laughed the historian. After lunch, he bought the plate from the canteen.
By the way, did you know why there were holes in the canteen cutlery back in the day? Because they needed to be tied to the table so that they wouldn’t be stolen. Staff would even wash them while they were tied. In some places – not Lithuania, however, but neighbouring Poland – even the plates were nailed to the table. But that was only around 1990 when there was a shortage of everything.
Are there people who hide the fact that they eat in canteens? Yes, almost as many as there are people who conceal the fact that they shop in cheap stores or second-hand clothing shops. But that was before. The expert noticed that for about three years now, Kaunas has been experiencing a canteen renaissance. New and modern ones are being opened, “Burgers are nice, but people want to have soup every day too.” To sell specific lunch, to work short hours and have a small number of employees – isn’t that a good business idea? “The idea that you can only make money by selling alcohol is becoming unfashionable.” Jonas avoids going to places that offer lunch of the day because more than the food served there he dislikes the visitors who only talk about loans and office business. However, he mostly likes the new canteens.
The canteen collector shares his impressions on the Facebook page with a simple name – Kauno valgyklos (Kaunas canteens). Often, his posts (in Lithuanian only) serve as a suggestion for friends or hungry people that stumbled onto the page accidentally. His blog is about two or three years old. Before that, he would share the lunch photos on his personal Facebook profile. It seems that there are plenty of posts to come since Jonas’ aim is to eat lunch in a different place every day. Even if he has to return to the same ones again and again. In the end, things change: spots open and close.
“Of course, food is part of the culture. In the Czech Republic it’s beer, in Trakai it is kibinai (traditional Karaite pastry) and in Karmėlava – cepelinai. Everybody knows that. And in Kaunas, like in Vilnius, as it should be in a big city, we can find many things, and that’s interesting.” Bon appetite!
Story by Gunars Bakšejevs for Kaunas Full of Culture magazine. Photos by Lukas Mykolaitis.