“I wonder what a lemon was,” says Julia, the young rebel heroine of George Orwell’s 1984, after hearing a rhyme about lemons and oranges. “I can remember lemons,” says Winston, the novel’s protagonist. “They were quite common in the fifties. They were so sour that it set your teeth on edge even to smell them.” The novel, which your high school English teacher probably made you read so that you’d understand the word “Orwellian,” has been in the news over the course of the last month for suddenly shooting to the tops of bestseller lists. It imagines a totalitarian future in which objective truth becomes obsolete and simple commodities like lemons become mythical.
In the fictionalized socialist nation of Oceania, the government rations goods to its citizens, and publishes only news that make the rations seem plentiful, even though they are barely enough to get by. Goods like coffee are replaced with artificial Victory Coffee, gin is replaced with synthetic Victory Gin, and sugar is replaced with the more readily available saccharine tablets. Over time, the people of Oceania have become accustomed to these approximations of once-common commodities and have lost their sensory memories of the foods—the way chocolate melts on the tongue and the way a little pile of sugar feels when you push a finger into it.
The chocolate rationed out to the masses is “dullbrown crumbly stuff” that tastes “like the smoke of a rubbish fire,” and Victory Gin gives of a “sickly, oily smell” and tastes “like nitric acid.” Eating in Oceania, like sex or reading, is a punishing, utilitarian activity, with little room for personal predilections. Few people remember a time when it was anything else, their palates flattened from years of propaganda and saccharine.
Part of Winston’s job, as an employee of the government-owned Times newspaper, is to rewrite older articles about supplies and rations so that the predictions made by the Ministry of Plenty are correct in every case. When the Ministry of Plenty incorrectly predicts and announces that no changes will be made to the chocolate ration in 1984, the easy and obvious solution when chocolate supplies come up short is to pull a quiet mathematical retcon and edit the old articles. If anybody remembers the article differently, there is no written evidence to corroborate their memory—only hunger.
At the end of a miserable lunch of “pinkish-grey stew” one day at the Ministry of Truth, Winston asks himself, “Had it always been like this? Had food always tasted like this?” On the one hand, Winston could not remember a time when food was plentiful or good. But on the other hand, “Was it not a sign that this was not the natural order of things, if one's heart sickened at the discomfort and dirt and scarcity, the interminable winters, the stickiness of one's socks, the lifts that never worked, the cold water, the gritty soap, the cigarettes that came to pieces, the food with its strange evil tastes?” In a world where scientific facts are filtered through the government and recorded history is in a state of constant revision, the “strange evil tastes” of food become some of the only pieces of static, tangible proof that the government might not be acting in the best interest of its people.
The moment Winston begins to question Big Brother and commit “thoughtcrime,” a Pandora’s box of illicit foods is opened for him. He starts an ill-fated affair with Julia, a young dissident from the Ministry of Truth who poses as a Party member. After their first rendezvous, she gives him a tiny piece of black market chocolate—something Winston has not tasted since he was a child, before Oceania and Big Brother.
As the myth of Big Brother breaks down, so does the myth of a functioning ration system. Winston begins to see evidence of dissidence and evidence of a black market everywhere he looks or smells. Stopping by the home of a member of the Inner Party one night, Winston encounters wine for the first time in his life, “a thing he had read and dreamed about.” And because of her zealous action within the party, Julia has access to a world of elusive goods that Winston hasn’t glimpsed or smelled in decades—real “Inner Party” coffee, real milk, real jam, real tea, real sugar. But the more they both sink into the hedonism of these illegal pleasures, the closer they get to betraying their disloyalty to the Party.
For many who have grown up in non-fictional totalitarian governments, intricate systems of rationing, corruption, and black markets are a familiar reality. In Cuba, beef is a huge part of the culinary tradition and the cornerstone of one of the most popular Cuban dishes; ropa vieja. But food is rationed and scarce, and it is almost impossible to find beef unless you accidentally run into a cow with a car or have connections to the black market, and restaurant owners can lose their businesses if they are found buying beef on the black market. As a result, beef is often replaced by creative amalgamations of pork, chicken, and mutton.
In the Soviet Union, which was widely regarded as the inspiration for the totalitarian communism depicted in 1984, strict trade laws and closed borders made it almost impossible to buy many foreign products. My brother-in-law, Javid, who grew up in Azerbaijan during the Soviet Union, had only one ice cream product throughout his childhood—a small prepackaged ice cream cone called Plombir, filled with a perfectly molded, unadorned hemisphere of vanilla ice cream. Bubblegum existed in the collective conscious of the Soviet Union, but not its economy, so teenagers like Javid found ways to buy American bubblegum on the black market.
Even after generations of propaganda about prosperity and equality, it’s hard to make a nation forget about the food of its past. You can take away lemons and erase all the recorded history that exists about them, but they will still find their way into the curiosity of a young woman through a recited rhyme. When 1984’s Winston encounters his first “real coffee,” he recognizes it instantly. “The smell was already filling the room, a rich hot smell which seemed like an emanation from his early childhood, but which one did occasionally meet with even now, blowing down a passage-way before a door slammed, or diffusing itself mysteriously in a crowded street, sniffed for an instant and then lost again.”