(Above photos: Salmiak Drop; the licorice section at the grocery store)
The last time I traveled, I was deciding what to order from a seafood place at the airport in Boston. I was, as always, tempted to order the lobster roll, but once the woman told me the ridiculous price, I reconsidered. (I’m happy to pay the market price for an excellent lobster roll, but I’d rather be sitting on a dock in Cape Cod to enjoy it.) “Actually, can I have the shrimp wrap?” I asked, pointing to the pre-made selection under cooled glass at my right.
The woman in line behind me smiled knowingly as she stepped up to order. “I might get that, too. Fewer calories,” she added conspiratorially.
I looked at her in surprise, then smiled politely and went my way. Her comment made me a little sad; calorie count hadn’t factored into my decision. I realized I hadn’t even thought about calories in a while, almost certainly because I’m married to a European and live in Europe, where people have managed to retain a modicum of sanity regarding what they consume. What could more effectively suck all of the inherent pleasure out of dining than singling out your dishes, one by one, and analyzing their fat, sugar, or carbohydrate content? Besides, this American obsessing isn’t working—we still have the highest obesity rate of any country in the world.
At the extreme ends of the eating disorder spectrum, you have binge-eating, anorexia and bulimia, but it seems to me that vast numbers of American men and women exhibit signs of some sort of disordered eating. “Disordered eating” is a term that actually encompasses a wide range of irregular eating behaviors—for example, excessive exercise, obsessively counting calories, eliminating certain food groups from your diet entirely (other than being vegetarian, or for religious reasons), intentionally skipping meals, consistently overeating when you’re not hungry, and thinking about food more than 50% of the time. The list doesn’t end there, either, and it describes plenty of my American friends and acquaintances.
In America, it’s normal to be weird about food. But, of course, this neurosis is anything but normal, because it means everyone is devoting way too much thought to something fairly simple. Normal is a relative term, but for my money, what’s “normal” is eating a moderate amount of food from every food group, every day—and doing so without devoting an inordinate amount of thought to it. I think the American obsessing actually overrides our better natures, and makes people more likely to overindulge, or severely limit, what they eat. A glut of thought leads to a glut of consumption (or a glut of restraint).
I can honestly say I have hardly ever heard a Dutch person mention calories in any conversation I’ve had here. Food is something you eat when you’re hungry. If you want to lose weight, you eat less of it, especially sweets. But you don’t agonize over different menu choices or pore over nutritional labels in the grocery store, and you don’t discuss your caloric concerns ad nauseum to friends and family. And you would certainly never burden a stranger in the airport with this behavior.
When I tried to explain the Atkins diet to my husband, he didn’t understand what I was talking about.
“You know, it’s when people cut out all carbohydrates—no bread, no pasta, no refined carbohydrates.”
“No bread?” he asked, incredulous. Then, deadly serious, “I would die.”
And he would. He eats about a loaf of bread every two to three days. Breakfast is coffee, yogurt mixed with nuts and fruit, and/or a peanut butter sandwich. He sometimes brings another sandwich or two (two pieces of bread with a slice of cheese, jam, or peanut butter in the middle) to the office as a snack, or to have with lunch. Sometimes he’ll even have one after dinner. Yes, he is a runner with a high metabolism, but if bread were really the culprit of America’s obesity, my husband would still be bigger than he is. And the way he eats is similar to the way all Dutch people eat—their bread consumption is through the roof. The almighty sandwich is a key staple of the Dutch diet, eaten at either breakfast or, more commonly, lunch, and sometimes both. My husband says this is changing, that people are eating more salad at lunch, and expanding their culinary horizons. As far as I can tell, though, sandwiches, or “broodjes” (often served open-faced, with the top piece of bread on the side) still make up the majority of the lunch menu at any Dutch café, and in private homes. And even if you do order a salad, it will likely be served with a large slice of bread on the side! Because without bread, how could it be enough?
Maybe the Dutch don’t gain weight from eating all this bread because they’re often eating bread that was baked in a bakery. And even if the bread is purchased at the grocery store, there’s still a whole section of “fresh-baked” bread that is made on-site. My husband and I buy either from bakeries or the fresh-made kind from the grocery store and keep it in the freezer, so when it’s open, we only have a few days to eat it. Luckily, this is not a problem due to my husband’s amazing capacity to wolf it down. Now that my daughter is one and a half, she is also starting to pull her weight in the bread-eating department.
The Dutch love of starch doesn’t end with bread, either. In Dutch grocery stores, there is an entire freezer section devoted to potatoes—all sizes of peeled, chopped, or mashed potatoes in plastic bags, some with flavorings (including barbecue), ready for any Dutchie to boil, fry, bake or mash and have for dinner. Stamppot (literally, “mashed pot”) is a quintessential Dutch dish—mashed potato with various other veggies thrown in. Varieties of stamppot include hutspot (“mixed pot”), which is mashed potato with carrot, onion, and bacon; stamppot boerenkool, which is mashed potato with kale; stamppot zuurkool, which is mashed potato with sauerkraut, and stamppot spinazie, which is mashed potato with spinach. Potato, po-tah-to.
“It’s comfort food. Wintry,” I said, the first time my husband made hutspot for me. “It’s very good, but it doesn’t strike me as year-round fare.”
“Well yeah, we don’t eat it in the summer, either. It was how we survived during the war,” he explained. “The Spanish surrounded Leiden in the late 1500s and we had to live on what we had inside the city walls. So now it’s a national dish.”
Chalk it up to Dutch practicality that what they ate when they were starving is still something they’re proud to eat today. If I had to eat something when I was starving, I’d be more than happy to leave it behind permanently in times of plenty. But this is a typical Dutch way of thinking: if it was good enough for them, then, it’s good enough for me, now. Their stamppot pride may also have to do with the fact that the Dutch never developed their own cuisine of the kind you find in France, Italy, Japan or India, to name a few fabulous examples. Instead, they have the aforementioned sandwiches, potatoes, and a few other dishes and specialties: mackerel and haring (herring), (due to their proximity to the sea), pannekoeken (Dutch pancakes, which are more like the French crepes than their American counterparts), poffertjes (puffed pastries), cheese (including Gouda and Edam, to name two of the most internationally known varieties), and drop (licorice).
Dutch licorice needs its own explanation. The candy section in every Dutch grocery store has two halves: one that has the chocolate and fruity sweets, and right next to it, one devoted solely to varieties of drop. The Dutch must start eating it very young, because there’s just no way something this bitter, even when sweetened with honey, is anything other than an acquired taste.
Forget Twizzlers or Good n’ Plenty; drop is totally different. It’s generally brown or black in color, and it often isn’t sweet at all. Coming from the land of corn syrup, this was really strange to me—what’s the point of candy if it isn’t sweet, or at least sweet-and-sour? There are many varieties and flavors of drop: with honey (this is the only one I can stomach), salted, sweet and salted (mixed), double-salted (yuck!), and “salmiak”, which is licorice flavored with—wait for it—AMMONIUM CHLORIDE, for an extra astringent flavor. What the what?!?! (I asked several Dutch people what the hell “salmiak” was before turning to Google, because none of them knew. Nerdy sidebar, courtesy of Wikipedia: “the word salmiak is derived from an archaic Latin name for ammonium chloride, sal ammoniacus, meaning “salt of Ammon.” “Ammon” in turn refers to the temple of Ammon, where ancient Greeks first found ammonium chloride.) I don’t know how you say “absolutely revolting” in Greek or Latin, but as far as I’m concerned, that should also be on the Salmiak packaging. I shudder just thinking about it.
However, If you hate bread, potatoes, cheese, and licorice, don’t worry! The Dutch, much like the English, realized that most other countries had them beat when it came to cuisine. The major cities in the Netherlands have excellent restaurants featuring food from all over the world. And thanks to the direct nature of the Dutch character, no Dutchie would ever be offended if a visitor politely declined their offer of drop. After all, that means more for them.