The Hungarian state catering became commonplace after the Second World War, when the Soviet model was adopted. With the spread of mass catering, social eating as a communal event underwent a significant change and was no longer a private activity. From childhood onwards, it became an influential factor that transformed generational traditions and family customs. The Latin word 'mensa' itself means table and was originally used for the dining room for students in boarding schools in the first half of the 20th century, before the term gradually spread to school canteens.
The main precursor was the organisation of meals for the poor in the early 20th century. The social problem of the period escalated when also impoverished members of the middle class were starving but were ashamed to go to the soup kitchen. The National Association of Private Officers was the first to try to help by organising a draw; and in 1917, the National Committee for the Maintenance of War Soup Kitchens was set up. It provided lunches for over 40,000 adults and children in war soup kitchens, civilian canteens and day care centres - in return, the state provided the basic ingredients in wartime as well. In 1918, the student canteen of the National Hungarian Israelite Public Culture Association was established for university and secondary school students.
The press of the time mentions two student cafeterias: one maintained by the capital, the other by the Israelite association mentioned above. The newspaper Uj Hírek of 12 September 1918 wrote about the situation of students’ catering at that time:
"So far we have all asked our students for a poverty certificate. This year, however, only those are allowed to eat free of charge at the canteen of the capital, who can prove with an official certificate from their place of residence that they cannot afford the daily lunch and dinner (the price of the two together is two koronas). Last year we had a deficit of 172,000 koronas compared to 131,000 koronas the year before (...) Dr. Ernő Weiller, the general secretary of the canteen (of the National Hungarian Israelite Public Culture Association), stated that for a cost of 1,200 koronas a day, three hundred and fifty college students eat free lunch at the association. The free lunch allowances are available not only to Jewish students but also to students of other religions. Thus, these two student canteens are fully prepared for the students of the fifth September of the war."
During the Second World War, food supplies were hampered. In 1944, the government set up the Ministry of Public Supply, which was responsible for food supplies to the public and the army. In 1947, the Ministry was abolished and the National Office for Public Supply was established; the soup kitchens and day-care centres continued to operate. In terms of the food available, it is curious that the forced solutions of the shortage economy were often fixated in school menus, for example, dry pasta dishes are still common today, and fish was marginalised as a low-calorie food and has not become more common ever since.
In 1948, the situation of agriculture showed an improving trend, the ticket system was abolished, and nationalisation took place. With the mass employment of women and the provision of daytime child care (in crèches, kindergartens, day care centres), state children’s catering was also given a prominent role. The National Institute of Food and Nutrition Science (OÉTI) was set up to carry out inspection and professional training. Despite all this, the commerce of socialism did not favour the food supplies, which had deteriorated alarmingly by 1953, and compulsory food surrenders and “attic clearings” were carried out again. Bread was the staple food of the period; there was a shortage of varied, nutritious food.
In 1953, the Child Catering Company was established, whose main function was to provide children with food during this period of scarcity. However, the beginnings were not without problems: food was often of poor quality, kitchens were poorly equipped, overloaded and had hygiene problems. Delivery was difficult due to inadequate means of transport. There were constant efforts to improve the condition of the kitchens, as there were many needy children, who had to be fed.
In the public catering sector, quantity was at the expense of quality, with the emphasis on cheap and simple ingredients (such as tinned food) and recipes were simplified. In the 1960s, the regulations required more meat and seasonal vegetables and fruits to be included in the menu than before, with potatoes as main side dish.
The activities of the Child Catering Company were described in this way in the newspaper Esti Hírlap of 30 August 1959:
"The 64,000 lunches are prepared in thirty-two kitchens and delivered to 500 schools and kindergartens in sealed containers. Seventy chefs prepare food and 600 cooks and kitchen employees help them. Twenty-six closed vehicles transport the ready meals. Some figures on the scale of the cooking: 18,000 litres of milk, 6,200 kilos of meat and 50,000 pastries are consumed every day. (...) The Child Catering Company therefore takes a great deal of trouble off parents' shoulders. For breakfast, they are given bread and butter with cocoa one day, coffee and bread with salami another day. There are three courses for lunch, and the snack is fruit or bread and butter. The staff are under constant medical supervision."
Over the next two decades, the fatty, stodgy, higher-calorie spicy foods, which are relatively simple to prepare, became popular in mass catering. This was rooted in the increased energy needs of peasants and labourers doing heavy physical work, and later, as the labour market changed, it became a hothouse for diseases caused by over-nutrition. In the 1970s, a time of relative prosperity, there were about 3 million overweight people and 300,000 diabetics in our country. The challenge for public catering, even today, is to change these habits, for example by reducing carbohydrates and salt in food preparation.
Translated by Zita Aknai
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