Mircea Scrob: From Mamaliga to Bread as the 'Core' Food of Romanian Peasants: A Consume-Centered Interpretation of the Dietary Change from a Standard-of-Living Perspective

January 5, 2015

The fifth and last departmental research seminar of the fall term featured Mircea Scrob, who discussed the importance of studying dietary changes from a historical and anthropological perspective, and presented some of the findings of his ongoing dissertation research on the change from mămăligă to bread as the core food of the rural population in Romania, with a focus on the marked shift taking place in the socialist period, particularly in the 1960s.

Mircea highlighted three lines of inquiry relevant to his research, and the ways in which his approach enters into a dialogue with the existing theoretical and empirical work in the field of dietary change research. First, his dissertation aims to contribute to a better understanding of dietary changes in general, especially the formation of food preferences, adding important evidence about the role of the early socialization into a certain food culture and dietary pattern for later-life food preferences. The prevailing approach to dietary change assumes that there is a strong relationship between early formed dietary practices and lifelong food preferences. Known as the dietary conservatism model, this theory shows how various processes, such as food neophobia, the “mere” exposure effect, and evaluative conditioning, form a vicious circle of exclusion of new foods from diets established early on in life. Empirical evidence, however, is much more mixed than the theoretical model, partly because longitudinal studies of food preferences are difficult to carry out and costly.

The second topic to which his research contributes is the debate between interpreting the European-wide shift from non-bread to bread as either a positively or negatively experienced change. Whereas the dietary conservatism model assumes that the population experiences dietary changes negatively, the socio-cultural prestige model would argue that changes are not just the result of external pressure, but that they also hinge on the interiorization of the social and cultural value of certain foods. One example is how rural residents invested bread consumption with rich meanings reflected and reaffirmed by the use of bread as a ritual and festive food, as a marker of status, and as a comfort food and special treat for children. Following from his research, Mircea suggested that neither of the two explanations is wholly satisfactory by itself, and that the very binary analytical model should be overcome by considering how the rural consumers experienced both frustration and a fulfilment of their desires in the shift from one core food to another.

Finally, his dissertation proposes a more nuanced evaluation of consumer experiences during socialism. Rather than drawing comparisons to either the capitalist world or Marxist ideals, a fruitful way of trying to understand consumer expectations during socialism would be to consider not only durable goods (such is the focus of most recent literature on automobiles, refrigirators, gas ovens, etc.), but also goods such as bread, meat, or textiles, which were much more salient for a population largely without electricity up to the mid-1960s.

Mircea’s extensive archival research of six Romanian counties showed a marked increase in bread consumption in the 1960s. One explanation is that bread made financial sense in the socialist economic system, in that it contributed to capital accumulation. Peasants, however, bought it not only for financial reasons (starting with the 1960s it was more profitable for them to buy bread and sell maize on the free market, provided that they had access to it), but also for reasons of convenience, following the introduction of baking services in the agricultural cooperatives. As to the peasants’ dietary preferences, Mircea conducted interviews in several villages from the counties researched, asking the interviewees if they preferred to consume six side dishes with mămăliga or with bread.

His findings show that neither the dietary conservatism nor the socio-cultural prestige models fully account for the peasants’ preferences. Instead, he proposed a calorie-based conditional model, according to which foods become liked or disliked in relation to their nutrient content. The value of this model is that it allows for both frustration and fulfillment of preferences concomitantly.

The theoretical and methodological reflections put forward during the lecture, as well as the rich empirical evidence presented opened up a lively follow-up discussion, testifying to not only the interest in the particular case study of dietary change in rural Romania, but also the broader implications of the topic.