NS, my father, is a 55-year-old Dutch immigrant to the US. He grew up in the small town of Delft. He told me about this new year’s eve food tradition that is observed where he grew up.
NS: New years is one of the most important holidays
for the Dutch. On new years’ eve, we would gather together, there would be on
the TV a comedian doing a run-down of the year, and we would have oliebollen
(oil balls). They are a food you only eat during new years and you can get them
from a stand on the street in late December. My mom used to make them. To make
them, you put some flour and yeast together in a bowl with some sugar to let
the mixture rise. Then you add all kinds of stuff in it: nuts, apple, raisins,
cranberries, other dried fruits. You plop them into balls and fry them in oil.
Then once you’re done you can put some powdered sugar on them.
The informant, even though he now lives in San Francisco, makes this treat every year as a member of a global nationality. He likes oliebollen because he associates the taste with childhood memories and festivities. He told me that the new year is one of the most important and elaborate celebrations for the Dutch, so it makes sense that he wants to keep this foodway alive as he carries out his identity as a Dutch-American. I have eaten them every new year as well, the informant is my dad, and I have to say that the taste definitely reminds me of that particular time. Since they are only consumed once a year for this event, they take on a special significance and anticipation which leads me to savor each bite when I get the chance. The food tradition is a way for my dad to keep his sense of Dutch-ness alive as he lives abroad in a foreign land.
Pannenkoeken (pun-nĕ-koo-ken) are a traditional Dutch meal. They are large and flat pancakes with the thinness of crepes. In my family, we enjoy them for dinner on special occasions such as birthdays and holidays. I collected this piece from my father, who emigrated to the US from the Netherlands as an adult and grew up in the town of Delft. I asked him to show me how to make the recipe one night at our home in San Francisco.
NS: “Alright first you start by putting on some
vegetable soup, I do some bouillon cubes and whatever vegetables you have lying
around. Then you start the pannenkoeken by putting flour in a big bowl.
JS: “how much flour do you use?”
NS: “Just some flower, as much as you want. (laughs)
and some salt. mix it up a bit to get rid of the clumps… there, perfect! Then
crack an egg into it and mix it up, add two eggs or so mixing in between.”
JS: (I add three eggs absentmindedly)
NS: “Haha, perfect, you want to get it nicely mixed…
then add some milk gradually. You want to mix it all the while so that it stays
(I mix vigorously, adding milk little by little until
we have a soupy batter)
NS: “Then we heat up the pan. You want to move the
bowl over here near the stove. Rub butter around in the pan and then pour in a
spoonful of the batter, and you want to start moving the pan to spread the
batter almost as soon as you start pouring.”
(I pour in the batter. the pan is not hot enough, so
the batter just sits at the bottom.)
NS: “Ok yeah we tried a little too soon. Just wait
until the pan heats up a bit.”
He puts a plate on top of the simmering pot of soup
and explains that this is where we will put the finished pannenkoeken to stay
hot. I pour more batter once the pan is hotter and then tilt the pan back and
forth to spread the runny batter all the way around the pan. This takes some
practice, but I eventually work out a way to make nice, even, golden brown
pannenkoeken and set them on the plate. My dad shows me how to fill the last
few with Gouda cheese and fold them over on top of each other. I heft the pot
of soup along with the full plate on top and set it on the dinner table. We eat
the soup first and then start on the cheese pancakes, topping them with cumin
and nutmeg. They are rich and creamy. We then set ourselves upon the “sweet”
pancakes underneath, topping them with maple syrup, brown sugar, walnut pieces,
and cinnamon. In the past, we have used berries and Nutella as well. I ask my
dad where he learned this recipe and what it means for him.
NS: “My mom used to make them for the family, it was
always an exciting treat for the kids. I like them, sometimes I just get the
JS: “Are there any differences between the way you
make them and the way your mom used to make them?”
NS: “No not really. The soup is essentially the same and the batter too. The one thing I changed was folding them over onto the cheese, putting it in the middle. I think my mom put the cheese on top. That was my contribution to the tradition. (laughs)”
Eating pannenkoeken is one of the cherished traditions in my household. It is one of the few Dutch recipes that we continue to perform. A recently naturalized US citizen, this piece of folklore helps my dad to remember his family from the country from which he emigrated, many of whom have since passed away and some of whom he keeps in touch with long-distance. The environment in which he grew up, the small town of Delft, is radically different from the American city of San Francisco, and I think traditions like these help him to maintain his sense of identity as an expatriate. For me, who grew up in San Francisco, this tradition gives me a sense of my dad’s history as well as my own Dutch heritage, a means of holding on to what makes one special in a country of immigrants from all over the world. The task of making the pannenkoeken requires some practice, and while the recipe is simple and often approximated, one must have a feeling for how the batter flows, what temperature the pan should be, how to store the finished cakes so that they stay hot, when to add butter, and how much batter to add per pannekoek. The process is like an elaborate choreography in the kitchen so it feels much more special to make them well since doing so requires practice and instruction. The differences between my dad’s and his mother’s pannenkoeken are dependent on the available ingredients: my dad might make the soup differently, and my grandmother might have used different kinds of cheese and, as my dad mentions, a different technique for making the cheese pancakes The cheese we use at home is imported from Holland.
Food has an intimate relation with memory and identity. What we consume is what we are made up of, and tastes can connect us intimately to a community and way of life. Making pennenkoeken is one way my father retains his identity as a Dutch-American immigrant, and a way in which he transmits this identity to his American-raised children, passing down a memory of warm family dinners.
The informant is a Dutch immigrant to the United
States in his fifties. He emigrated from the Netherlands in his thirties and
lives in San Francsico. He experienced this holiday tradition every year on
December 5h in the town of Lochem, with a population of 10,000 people who would
gather in the market square. He told me about the tradition in a face-to-face
interview. I am his son and we would practice some aspects of this tradition
when I was younger, before celebrating Christmas.
Sinter Klaas would come every year, early December, he
would arrive on a steam ship from Spain, he looked like santa claus, but he was
slimmer, not as fat, had a long white beard. He would come and he had these
svaarte pieten, black petes. It was usually women who would play them, they
were often athletic and do handstands. Svaarte piet would come through the
chimney, you would put your shoe out in front of the chimney, put out a carrot
for Sinter klaas’ white horse, you would get a present.
There were lots of inconsistencies in the story. He
would also go with his horse on the roof to deliver the presents. Where I grew
up there was an actual ship that would come in with people dressed up as Sinter
Klaas and svaarte piet. Svaarte piet would throw candy at everyone. One was
pepernoten, these baked round things with spices, you would pick them from the
floor and eat them, they weren’t packaged or anything. Later you had to do
these things yourself, part of it was writing poems, teasing poems, you would
lay bare someone else’s hurtful or embarrassing details. The one getting the
present had to read the poem aloud and the more embarrassing the better. There
would be “surprises,” – not the English meaning – which were elaborate built
things. My dad built a model train after the train my sister took to school,
there was some present inside. It’s not just opening the present but there’s
more elaborate things going on. It needed a lot of involvement on the part of
the parents. I guess people had more time in those days (laughs).
The whole svaarte piet thing… at first I really
thought they were black and the relation to slavery never occurred to me. When
you look back at it its kind of insane, its insane that nobody thought anything
of it. There was a canal, he really came by boat. We would sing sinter klaas
songs. He would come into the class at school and you would sing a lot of
different songs for him.
If you were bad, they would put you in a bag, hit you
with a roe (a switch, a small broom) and take you to Spain.
I think it comes from Saint Nicolas, who was a saint
in Spain. He cut his mantle in half and gave it to poor people.
This was THE event for kids. Everyone in the town did
it though, it was a social thing. There was always a bit of a scary aspect of
it, Sinter klaas and svaarte piet. If you were not good, you would be taken to
Spain! They were kind of scary, there were people dressing up as them who could
have been drinking or whatever. We would sing a lot of naughty songs.
Sinter Klaas is a cherished Dutch holiday. This festival mobilizes so many different modalities (sight, smell, taste, sound) that it is hard to know where to start in terms of analysis. A big standout and controversy in recent years is the character Svaarte Piet. He is a black-faced, big-lipped caricature of a Spanish moor, and acts as the slave of Sinter Klaas, the white patriarch. The Netherlands was a substantial dealer in slaves during the expansion into the new world. This dehumanization happened partly by way of representations of the African as a jester, a helper, obedient, athletic, savage, primitive, and so on. This common representation seems to have seeped into the cherished tradition of Sinter Klaas and has been used as a justification for white people to don blackface and act out a caricature every winter. Interestingly and shockingly, this tradition continues today. It has recently come under flak from anti-racism groups as a representation and perpetuation of Dutch slavery and colonization. Svaarte Piet is largely, as we see in my informant’s experience, a way to normalize racist perceptions of Africans and instill in children a casual attitude of extreme otherization in the homogenous white community in which he grew up. My informant had thought the people in blackface were really black (he had not much experience with real black people) and thought of this whole ceremony as a normal, fun tradition, he reflects that “it’s insane that nobody thought anything of it.”
The festival had an immensely positive impact on the informant as a child. Much more excessive, dramatic, and embodied than Sinter Klaas’ American iteration Santa Claus – people would pilot a boat down the canal on which a tall figure dressed in royal red with a long curling white beard would throw out good wishes to the crowd – this tradition is very intricate and at times seems like the staging of an elaborate play. People write teasing poems to each other, parents set up ‘surprises’, elaborate constructions designed to shock and amaze the children, and actors traipse around the town throwing sweets to the people. Much less private and domestic than the American Santa Claus tradition, this celebration pours out into the streets, into the canals, and engages all generations in a communal, public celebration which works to articulate a notion of who the Dutch people are and how they are situated in relation to the rest of the world. The blatant otherization of the African is an integral part of the ceremony in this process of articulating the boundaries of the self.
One of the stories I heard, growing up as a kid, uhm… whether that be in elementary school or through my parents was the Dutch story about Hans Brinker, uhm… who is not usually named that, it is just his official title in the book. Uhm. And he’s a dutch boy that puts his finger in a damn and saves his entire village from drowning. I’m not sure what it is about this story that has been popularized so much, and I don’t know why it is taught so much in american schools. Uhm. But it is something that is stuck in my mind as the story that’s been passed on from generation to generation. Cause after looking it up I found out it originated in an 1875 book. But yeah, that’s my favorite piece of ferkl- folklore.
M is a close friend from Minnesota who studies film. He is a really serious guy with strong roots in Minnesota. He told me that he heard this story from his school and his parents and it stuck with him for whatever reason.
He sent me a voice clip over Whatsapp in which he said all of this. I told him to send me a piece of folklore earlier that day.
The story is an example of a martyr figure, a young boy, that saves his village through self sacrifice. It is probably indicative of values of the community. M mentioned that it was taught a lot throughout american schools and this could be an attempt to instill specific moral values in children, namely those relating to self sacrifice for the good of your community.
The informant is a 66-year old mother, step-mother, former poverty-lawyer, property manager/owner, and is involved in many organizations and non profits. She was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was four years old. She grew up in California, where she also attended college and law school. She lived in the suburbs of Chicago for a short while with her husband and family, and now they live in Pacific Palisades, California.
Informant: “St. Nicholas Day there is like December 7th or 8th. It was a secular holiday. I mean everybody, all the Jewish people (all 10% of them, the few left after the war), we all celebrated St. Nicholas day. So, your dad is in the Netherlands with us on St. Nicholas Day, we call it Sinterklaas there, and he looks out the window and says, ‘Oh yes, really secular holiday.’ There’s the St. Nick, whose you know, this cardinal. White haired cardinal all decked out. And then, SwartePiet, which is Black Pete was a little black guy with him. On St. Nicholas Day in Holland we always put out our wooden shoes. We’d put out the wooden shoes because then they’d be filled with chocolate. They would do it really literally though. So if you were “bad” that year, you would actually get coal in your wooden shoe. Not like they do here in America with the stockings and presents. Even in the United States early on we would always get packages from the Netherlands before St. Nicholas Day.
Interviewer: “So could it be any shoes?”
Informant: “A wooden shoe! Instead of stockings it was the wooden shoes. If you were a bad kid, then St. Nicholas would put coal in your shoe as opposed to, you know, chocolates.”
Analysis: I remember in class we talked about most Christmas traditions being based on older Pagan festivals, and many religious holidays’ links with earth-cycle rituals. St. Nicholas Day being a secular ritual in the Netherlands could be an example of a Christmas tradition’s origins being based in pagan tradition, or it could also be an effect of Christianization of the area where the Netherlands is now.
The figure of Black Pete, or Swarte Piet as he is called in Dutch, really fascinates me. I did some research on him and found that there has actually been a good deal of controversy surrounding “Santa’s Black-faced Helper”, as a writer for NPR refers to the figure. It’s not just that there is a statue of a little black man next to the more favorably-sculpted Saint; each year, there is a Sinterklaas parade, during which several individuals in black face dance around as St. Nicholas’s helpers.
There are different stories as to why Swarte Piet is swarte. Some say it is because he was once the devil – this in and of itself is problematic in the context of blackface minstrelcy—that black is associated with the devil goes to support racial supremacy theories. Some say that Swarte Piet was a slave of Sinterklaas. Others say Piet is just dirty from sliding down too many chimneys helping St. Nicholas.
Regardless of how Piet became Swarte, in recent years there have been more and more people upset by the blackface tradition associated with Sinterklaas parades. It will be interesting to see how the controversy plays out. As of now, the Dutch courts have refused to intervene.