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Who's out of the sauce, loses?

05 of July '24

The column is from A&B issue 1|24

Just as there is a sauce of a thousand islands, there is also an island of a thousand sauces. It is Poland. In our country, sauces are multiplying in abundance and have received a mysterious ennoblement. Literally and figuratively.

"What kind of sauces are they supposed to be?" - they ask me whenever I buy a hot dog, casserole or kebab. Never: "what sauce?" Always: "sauces." Plural, you can go crazy. Two, three, four kinds, and the price is the same. No longer the unleavened ketchup and mustard, but a whole rainbow of flavors and a gallop of novelty. And I always take just one, and it's the same one. The vendors look on with a bit of shock. Even with pity. I'm a sucker. I don't reach for the luxury in gratis, I miss out on some secret ritual of the salivary conspiracy. I refuse to participate in the celebration of national prosperity, where everyone can have as much sauce as they want at once.

And whoever takes at all without sauce is already suspect. He'll probably check how sautéed those rolls, sausages, meats, salads really taste. A masochist or a sanitary inspector. The same is true in our country today with trade, gastronomy, services and the buildings and spaces housing them. In decline are simple, ordinary and useful places: stores in the street, ordinary restaurants, local bars, beer bars, canteens, hairdressers - everyday life sauté. Instead, the take is on places watered down with at least a few special sauces at once. The kind that will make Kowalski feel pampered, honored or appropriately torn.

There are two types of sauces: de luxe and unleavened. Both popular not infrequently with the same audience. And so: shopping and entertainment centers, those sterile distillates of urban life, are watered down with mild sauces of stability, aspiration and "we can afford" luxury. Luminous alleys, stores from under the needle, freedom from the antics of weather and time. All according to the program. Also wallowing in the de luxe sauces are gastronomic "concepts" in smoothed-out old breweries, spinning mills, distilleries and noble shops, including holders of Michelin stars or - especially - a menagerie aspiring to them. There are also cafes with baristas caressing every coffee bean and barbers splitting hairs into eights.

Everything is "unique," though at the same time smooth, level, luminous and safe to the square. An extension of home. From the couch, one finds oneself in the seat of a car, and then through the parking lot under the roof - into the soothing space of a commercial colossus or gastroconcept. In the unleavened, sweet-sour sauces of chaos, chance and instability, on the other hand, the Pole likes to wallow in markets, marketplaces and bazaars. In fry-ups and waffle houses. Here, by contrast, it must be grubby and crooked. Mud or old fritter rule. Opportunity hangs in the air. Disorder, lack of form or its decay rhyme in the minds of customers with authenticity, lower price and eco-origin. It's usually a maelstrom, as both sellers and buyers know, but they play out the bargain theater for mutual enjoyment. And where there's theater, there's scenery. The worse, the better. And so: tomatoes from a crumbling stall are probably fresh and healthy, but from a stool placed somewhere - certainly even healthier. Guano-coated eggs lying in a softened marc are better than clean ones. They necessarily come from the chewiest hens, and each probably has at least two yolks. They would probably sell the fastest from a doused toilet bowl set in the aisle. Because, no matter how someone would design an aesthetically pleasing and functional marketplace, it will always be caught up in bazaar chaos and devoured in installments anyway.

It is apparent that - following the example of politics - also in trade and services we do not like symmetry, or - translating what is intended as an insult into human language - moderation, balance, chiaroscuro. Either or. On the one hand, establishments that look so that you can chow down from the floor, and on the other - the rubber of the markets and the linolea of the fryer. Instead, there is little love for ordinary urban life, which was doing well two decades ago and is still doing well today in other countries. So there are fewer and fewer stores that have lasted themselves several decades, with the same sign or neon sign and general atmosphere. With expeditors who know what they're selling and don't push bullshit, because they realize that an unsolicited customer will return more than once. Until a few years ago, I had a few such favorite outlets; today, bookstores are basically my mainstay. I take turns buying at a select few to keep them alive. And even if I overpay in them, I consider it an investment in my own pleasure of experiencing the real city. For me, a city without a bookstore doesn't count. Especially since in Poland (and with its penchant for the stall!), somehow bookmakers haven't caught on to sweeten the disappearance of bookstores.

Buccinists, where they still exist, are also a manifestation of local color, something that - with the disappearance of the ordinary sphere - is increasingly rare in our country. For, is there any archetype of the Polish store? Społem is active, but it is no longer synonymous with sam or grocery, and today's markets are a different category. In a few decades, perhaps the element of tradition will be Żabki, which is multiplying in power. For now, however, it's just a very clever idea of big business taking over ground-floor retail and living, only that in a unified sauce of modernity, promotions and loyalty programs. It's a splintering of mall aesthetics shot into the premises of former grocery, meat, vegetable stores.

And what about the archetype of the Polish inn, restaurant, bar? Here, too, poorly, with one exception: milk bars. Those that have survived are popular with locals and tourists alike. They have already got rid of the worst features of the communist era, have kept their character, have not been macdonaldized. They feed tasty, familiar, but light. They are often stuck in one place for decades, sometimes they move, but under the same name. At the same time, they can be neighbors of the most luxurious, which allows me to have small private perversions. There is a bar on Jerozolimskie Avenue. It overlooks a black Vitkac block from its window. Sometimes slipping soup in it, I look at the Vuitton signboard and count how many thousands of tomatoes with rice (6 zl 39 gr) one would have to spend across the street on some bag of luxury sauce watered down.

Jakub Głaz

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