Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

The Netherlands Food and Culture


For many people, “Dutch” is synonymous with a number of stereotypes: the clopping of wooden shoes, children skating to school in the winter, and a lone boy somewhere with his finger in a dyke. Some think of the Dutch as staid and stolid, settled placidly into a life of agriculture with days in the fields and evenings with the goude frouw knitting and the burgher puffing contentedly on his pipe.

In fact, wooden shoes are worn only in the muddy countryside; the Netherlands’ year-round climate is so damp and misty that there are few days when ice actually forms on the canals; and in place of a little boy with a very sore finger, Dutch engineers have established a network of well-engineered dykes, dams, pumps, and sluices that not only keep back the North Sea, but are also draining and reclaiming the 25 percent of the Netherlands that is actually below sea level.

The 400th anniversary of the planting of the first tulip bulbs in the Netherlands was celebrated in 1994. One of the most awaited spring displays of glorious color, tulips excite delighted thanks to the Dutch. What many do not know, however, is that in many periods of hunger in Dutch history – as recent as the Second World War – tulip bulbs were ingeniously made into breads, stews, and soups.

Even the briefest glimpse into history reveals the Netherlands (“Holland” is the unofficial but popular name) as an important seafaring nation which once had global possessions: from the Arctic Ocean to Asia, Africa, Latin America, and even Staten Island in the United States. The Dutch East India Company is credited with introducing, in 1625, the Holland-Friesian breed of cattle to America, and in the 1800s it was Amsterdam bankers who were the first to invest in railroad building in Canada. It was the outspoken Dutch in the 1500s who fought the evils of the Inquisition and who to this day offer their land as a haven to religious and political refugees. Daring explorers, shrewd businessmen, and independent thinkers, the Dutch have also made great contributions to world art and literature.

Perhaps the image of the contented Dutch persists over the reality because so many Dutch contributions to our daily lives relate to the home. It was the early Dutch pioneers in New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island who introduced flower gardens with imported bulbs from Holland, built their homes over food storage cellars, and even served pancakes, waffles, and cookies to neighbors who had never sampled such delights.

Even the ubiquitous mound of coleslaw on restaurant plates is of Dutch origin. Credited with introducing strip farming in southern Alberta, developing western irrigation districts, and starting market gardening in the Holland Marsh area of York County in Ontario, the sturdy Dutch emigrating to the New World from the most densely populated area of Europe found vast areas of good land awaiting their industrious ingenuity.

Because of the imports of the Dutch East India Company, the Dutch were among the first Europeans to make tea drinking a daily ritual. In fact, the Dutch are credited with initiating the 4:00 p.m. tea break, the rules of steeping for five minutes, and even the serving of tea from a tea cozy protected pot.

There are many who would argue that the most important Dutch contribution is the beloved tradition of Santa Claus. Although the Dutch Sinterklaas is the antithesis of the western world’s commercially exploited Santa, he arrives annually in the Netherlands on December 6.  Sinterklaas is a Dutch tradition specifically for the enjoyment of all children regardless of religion.

Dutch family life is of prime importance, and closeness of friends and relatives is retained with much visiting. In the Netherlands this poses no problem since more than 15.5 million people live in no more than 16,000 square miles. In Canada and the United States the Dutch maintain this visiting, regard-less of the distance one has to travel. The sports-loving, health-conscious Dutch are also famous for their appetites. Though many are overweight, they still claim “Western Europe’s longest life expectancy and one of the lowest death rates in the world.” Perhaps then, the image of the goude frouw knitting and the burgher puffing on his pipe is more a symbol of inner peace and strength that contributes to Dutch health and longevity.

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