The History and Culture of Food and Drink: The Low Countries

Anneke H van Otterloo. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

The term “Low Countries” is used here to mean the Netherlands. Belgium, known in the past as the southern Netherlands, has been independent since the 1830s. Situated between France to the south and the Netherlands to the north, Belgium has had a different history and has developed different cultural characteristics since the seventeenth century. Thus, in this chapter, Belgian culinary culture is employed for comparative purposes only.

A general overview of the history and culinary culture of the Netherlands should, perhaps, start with the observation that the Dutch have never succeeded in being proud of their cuisine. This seems to be a reflection of a lack of national pride that sometimes borders on indifference. If asked, most would probably not be able to identify important, genuinely national, dishes. Moreover, if such a dish were named, it might well be rijsttafel, which is not Dutch in origin but Indonesian and is a product of the Dutch East Indian colonies. Such a lack of concern with indigenous culinary culture forms a more or less sharp contrast to the attitudes of the inhabitants of neighboring Western European countries like Belgium, France, and, to some degree, Germany.

Over the centuries, foreign visitors have repeatedly expressed amazement at the Dutch lack of exaltation of the table. But since the late Middle Ages, daily food has always been prepared according to the general rule that it must be simple, nourishing, and cheap. Only after World War II did this undemanding attitude begin to change.

Contrasts and Similarities: The Late Middle Ages (1300 to 1500)

Little evidence is available about food and drink in the late medieval Low Countries. Cookery books in this era were exclusively aimed at the secular and ecclesiastical upper classes. The recipes, nevertheless, give some indication of the extremely wide range of possible dishes at the tables of the elite. The first Dutch-language cookbook, printed in Brussels by Thomas van der Noot in 1510 and titled Een notabel boecxken van cokeryen (“A notable book of cookery”), offers medieval recipes for festivities such as weddings and banquets that deal with the preparation of sauces, jellies, fish, meat, fowl and game, pies, tarts and other pastries, eggs, dairy products, various sugars, wine, and, finally, candied quinces and ginger.

The recipes come from various sources, many of them French, which underlines the observations of Stephen Mennell (1985) about the essential similarity of the tables of the medieval rich everywhere in western Europe, with the elite following culinary standards that were mostly Italian and French. It was especially at such festivals that princes, nobles, and church dignitaries ate and drank lavishly. The festive banquets of the Burgundian dukes, at that time rulers in northern France and the southern Netherlands (Flanders), initiated a luxurious and flamboyant civilization that served as a model all over Europe, as did the ceremonies of their peripatetic courts.

Prodigious consumption at the courts, particularly of meat (from pigs, calves, sheep, various fowl, and game) and wine, contributed to the maintenance of the high social position of the nobility. So, too, did the lavish use of precious spices and sugar in the preparation of a large number of dishes to be presented all at once. A refined taste, however, still had to be acquired, and social standards in eating, appetite, and table manners evolved only over the course of a lengthy civilizing process (Elias 1994). In the Middle Ages, quantity prevailed over quality, in no small part because of the irregularity of the food supply. It was a time when harvests failed, diseases killed domestic animals, and life was made even more insecure by pestilence and war (Mennell 1985: 20-39).

Religious restrictions on the consumption of meat and dairy produce also exerted a profound influence on cooking and eating. Prescribed days of abstinence were not confined to the period of Lent but (in addition to special days of fasting) were in force twice each week, which made for a total of about 150 days of food proscriptions every year. These religious rules of abstinence and fasting raised impediments to, and at the same time opened possibilities for, the culinary creativity of the cooks at the courts as well as those in ordinary kitchens. Fish—a preferred Lenten food—was abundantly available from the sea as well as from the many rivers and lakes in the Low Countries. Thus, meals at the court of the Bishop of Utrecht in the fourteenth century included about 20 different fish dishes, such as haddock, plaice, whiting, eel, herring (in various preparations), sturgeon, pike, perch, and carp. But Lenten abstinence may also have hindered the use of certain cooking methods—such as frying in northern Europe, where butter was the principal edible fat—and in such areas hampered the development of culinary variety in general. By contrast, in southern Europe, where olive oil—not proscribed during Lent—was the major fat, the days of abstinence may have encouraged the inventiveness of cooks, especially in the competition for prestige at noble and royal courts (Jobse-van Putten 1995).

Thus, sharp contrasts existed between festive and daily eating, between feasting and fasting, and between years of plenty and those of scarcity. Other contrasts and variations were related to the rhythm of the seasons, to the church calendar, to the regional agricultural produce, and, above all, to the social strata. To this might be added the contrast between fresh and preserved foods. Except for the short periods during harvest and slaughter, no possibility existed of eating one’s fill of fresh vegetables and meat. Rather, because of the rapid deterioration of foodstuffs, they were generally consumed as salted and dried products.

The ecological and geographic conditions typical of a northwestern European delta, with its rivers, lakes, sea inlets, and clay soils, applied especially to the western and northern parts of the Netherlands—Holland, Zeeland, and Friesland—that were to assume a dominant position in the Dutch Republic. The eastern and southern parts of the territory were higher and more sandy, with vegetation different from the lower regions. Such a division between the northwest and the southeast was for centuries an important factor in the economic and agricultural structure, influencing the products available for consumption. The cultivation of grains, for instance, was a matter largely defined by climate and soil.

In fourteenth-century Europe, famines and epidemics, most notably the Black Death, caused a considerable reduction of the population that in turn led to a transformation in the production and distribution of food. The grazing of cattle increased relative to the growing of crops, and for a time, meat was available in larger quantities, even for the poor. Later on, however, the cultivation of grains increased in the Low Countries as elsewhere in Europe, transforming them into staple foods.

A moderate maritime climate in the Low Countries allowed the growing of several types of cereals, including barley, oats, and rye. At least initially, wheat could be cultivated only in the southwest, and rye became the prominent grain in the Netherlands, even though wheat was the more appreciated of the two (Jobse-van Putten 1995: 83). Unfortunately, the quantity of grain produced was not sufficient for the population and had to be supplemented by imports from eastern Europe. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, this took place within the flourishing trade network of the Hanse—towns of the Hanseatic League—through which substantial parts of northern Europe were commercially interrelated, forming a line from the Baltic Sea and the river Danube in the east to Bruges (Flanders) and London in the west. In the fifteenth century, the position of the Hanse deteriorated, and the grain trade shifted to Amsterdam, which became the most important grain center, not only for the Low Countries but for Europe as a whole.

From the fourteenth century onward (although in Flanders much earlier), economic differentiation began to take place. The importance of money and trade increased; means of transport were improved; and cities came into being. Consequently, some farmers began to produce for the market. Butter and cheese, for example, were made in the low-lying grasslands of Holland and Friesland (where animal husbandry was important) and later became very famous delicacies. Despite such surplus production, however, subsistence agriculture remained the dominant economic pattern, especially on the small and isolated mixed farms in the eastern and southern parts of the Low Countries (Burema 1953: 29).

This type of economy substantially influenced attitudes toward preserving, cooking, and eating home-produced foods, an influence that endured, in part at least, until the second half of the twentieth century (Jobse-van Putten 1995: 379-84). Meals everywhere in the Low Countries were prepared in roughly similar fashion, although local and regional differences in agricultural products and technical conditions of cookery caused variations from place to place in the composition and taste of dishes and drinks. Grain was cooked as porridge (often the poorer qualities), baked as pancakes or bread, and brewed for beer. Porridge could be made in a pot over an open fire, but bread required an oven and, thus, tended to be found in the households of those in more fortunate circumstances. Beer was the common drink, as water was of poor quality and milk was mainly used for making butter and cheese. Vegetables and fruits—thought to be unhealthy—were not much appreciated. Nonetheless, tubers, beetroots, turnips, and peas were often daily foods by necessity. Green leafy vegetables were little known and eaten only among the upper strata. The number of meals per day depended on social position. The elite preferred two meals, but those performing physical labor often ate three or more times daily. In rural areas, frequent hot meals were common.

The ordinary medieval hot meal among country people and townsfolk consisted of a half-liquid pottage, which was a mush made of water, milk, or beer, root vegetables, and pulses (various types of peas) or grain, sometimes enriched with a piece of meat or lard. This dish, prepared over an open fire, like porridge, underwent changes as different ingredients became available throughout the seasons. If an oven was available, bread went with each of the day’s hot and cold meals.

In the consumption of pottage, the Low Countries were not very different from other western European countries during the Middle Ages. The records of two hospitals in the cities of Leiden and Utrecht between 1367 and 1500 indicate that pottages were an important dish in both institutions. Meat and fish (salted herring was a preferred Lenten food) were served with bread once or twice a day, and smaller meals consisted of bread, butter, cheese, eggs, and milk, buttermilk, or beer (Jobse-van Putten 1995: 145-50). Every part of an animal (head, brain, eyes, and entrails) was utilized in meat dishes, and the frequency with which such dishes were served by the two hospitals in question is an indication of both the relative prosperity of the cities and the abundance of meat in this period.

Is it possible to discern some traits of an emerging national cuisine in the Low Countries during the late Middle Ages? And is there any indication of a continuity with later developments in Dutch foodways? The little available evidence suggests a negative answer to both questions. The similarities in foodways with other western European countries seem to have been substantially greater than the differences. National states were later inventions, and local and regional networks were dominant in determining the production, distribution, and preparation of foods. The contrasts between common and festive fare, and between meal preparation among the elite, on one hand, and the masses, on the other, were everywhere alike.

There were, of course, some contrasts. One was the Dutch dependency on butter and meat fat for cooking instead of olive oil. That Dutch butter and cheese were famous products at an early stage, and continued to be so for centuries, was another. A final difference was the Dutch expertise in horticulture, which had gained a widespread reputation.

Gardening was initially practiced in the monasteries, but castles and country houses also began to develop cabbage patches and orchards for pears and apples. In addition, commercial gardens were cultivated near cities. Like butter and cheese, horticultural produce was later promoted for export. Foreigners came to regard it as “typically Dutch,” and it also achieved fame. Catherine of Aragon, for example, had salad vegetables brought to the English court from Holland by a special courier (Burema 1953: 16).

Rise and Fall of the Dutch Republic (1500 to 1800)

As already noted, strangers visiting the Netherlands over the centuries have often noted a simplicity in cuisine and lack of refinement in the eating and drinking habits of its citizens. The latter were frequently portrayed as people with little discrimination but fond of large quantities of food, which they swallowed quickly. By the late Middle Ages, the Dutch were also well known for their exorbitant drinking habits (Burema 1953: 53). Seventeenth-century paintings by Rembrandt and others show overloaded tables and bacchanalian parties of guilds and fraternities. Yet other paintings show families praying before a simple meal of nothing but bread and cheese. Although some of the latter may carry moral and religious messages, the same simplicity is also mentioned in foreigners’ descriptions (Schama 1987: 159-75). Together, these images give an impression of both the exception and the rule in Dutch eating and drinking in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Feasting was characterized by excessive indulgence, reminiscent of the late medieval Burgundian court. Yet daily meals were frugal and consisted, more often than not, of only one or two courses, even among the well-todo and the aristocracy. As both types of meals lack refinement, how does one interpret the combination of excess and simplicity that has become a distinguishing mark of Dutch culinary culture?

Popular wisdom has it that Dutch culinary mediocrity was caused by Calvinism, which frowned on mundane pleasures. Indeed, the economic and social influence of religion, especially of Calvinism, has been a much-discussed topic among historians and sociologists, who have pondered, among other things, the extent to which it was a force in the sociogenesis of the Dutch Republic and in subsequent public and private spheres of life. Culinary attitudes and preferences, of course, belong to both spheres and are part of the lifestyles and mentalities of the social groups in power. Thus, to understand the culinary culture of the Netherlands, a look at the process of state formation and related economic development is indispensable.

Certainly, the shift of the commercial and industrial center of gravity in Europe from the south to the northwest was an important marker in the beginning of the modern age, and the Low Countries were at the heart of this process. But the forces that led to the flourishing economic position of the Republic of the Seven United Provinces from 1588 to 1795 had already been set in motion by the end of the fifteenth century. At that time, the Low Countries were under the rule of the Habsburg monarchs, who were able, through fortuitous marriages, to enlarge their domains to include Austrian, Burgundian, and Spanish territories.

Situated as they were around the estuaries of the rivers Scheldt, Maas, and Rhine, the inhabitants of the Low Countries knew how to take advantage of the new economic opportunities this expansion provided. The development of new technologies to master floodwaters, the reclamation of land, and the construction of an early infrastructure of navigable canals and windmills were an important Dutch contribution to modern European economic growth. In addition, there were well-known Dutch advances in shipping and commerce, and development also occurred in other important fields such as agriculture, fisheries (especially herring), and industry (principally textiles and timber). It is important to note that all of this economic upsurge had already taken place before the Reformation, with its various brands of Protestantism (especially Calvinism), could have had any influence (De Vries and Van der Woude 1995: 23-67, 205-13).

Moreover, even the Calvinist influence was often moderated by a liberal and humanistic Christian faith in the tradition of Desiderius Erasmus. Consequently, Calvinism never succeeded in achieving a religious monopoly; indeed, many citizens clung to the old Roman Catholic church. This is not to say, however, that Calvinism was not an important force in Dutch history. It helped sustain the country during its revolt against the Spanish Habsburgs, and the great merchants who emerged as the Dutch Republic came into existence were supporters of the Reformation. These men found their rising influence in the affairs of the state legitimized by the new Protestant faith, and they, along with the patricians, did impress a cultural style on the public and private spheres of daily life that was typical of the urban bourgeois from Holland and Zeeland.

This meant that the exceptionally broad, but differentiated, middle classes in the cities were at the heart of the republican society (Huizinga 1984: 39-59; Van Deursen 1992)—a situation that was fundamentally different from other European countries such as England and France. In England, both the royal court and the rural gentry left their mark on cultural life, whereas in France, new cultural models, in foodways as in other areas, were pioneered at the urban court where the king and nobility resided (Mennell 1985: 102-34). But in the Netherlands, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the dominance of bourgeois influence, legitimized by the characteristic Christian lay religiosity of either the orthodox Calvinist or the liberal humanist, resulted in a frugal and simple culinary style.

This simplicity was not the case on festive occasions, however, despite the complaints of some Calvinist ministers about the collapse of tables under the weight of too many dishes, and despite the decrees issued by Doctor Nicolaas Tulp (the mayor of Amsterdam around 1660) against excessive expenditures for eating and drinking at weddings, christenings, and funerals. Indeed, such festivals were occasions when considerations of social status and competition overcame the ever-present virtue of thriftiness (Van Otterloo 1986: 39-43).

From 1500 to 1800, as in the late Middle Ages, the main foods remained grain, tubers, meat, lard, fish, cheese, and butter. The central importance of the grain market in Amsterdam meant an increasing abundance of wheat, and wheat bread became the most popular farinaceous food among the urban well-to-do, as well as among the patricians in their country houses. In addition, spices, for those who could afford them, were increasingly available from 1602 onward because of the trading efforts of the Dutch East India Company.

The diets of artisans and farmers centered mainly on a daily porridge, sometimes interchanged with or complemented by pancakes and rye bread. Bread might be accompanied by butter or cheese, but not both. The two together were viewed as a needless luxury, even as “devil’s work.” If possible, bread was eaten at breakfast with fish, porridge, or another hot dish, and perhaps at a third or even fourth meal in the early evening with a pottage. Many varieties of bread were used, depending on social position and the type, rhythm, and place of work.

In distinguished circles, the salad, an invention diffused from the south, often accompanied the early evening meal or was used as an entrée at the beginning of a hot meal. Initially, beer was the beverage of choice at meals, but later on it was largely replaced by milk, buttermilk, or whey, although the poor generally drank water. After 1680, coffee began to be used; in the eighteenth century, it became a popular drink, and there were many coffeehouses in the cities and towns. Tea—called “women’s tobacco”—also came into use and long remained a high-status beverage, partly because of the costly tea set required by social custom. Tea was drunk by the wives of patricians and bourgeois regents and diffused very slowly among the lower social strata during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Jobse-van Putten 1995: 151-226).

For many, the day’s two hot meals generally consisted of one to three courses: a starter, a main course, and possibly a dessert. The starter might have been a salad or a sop (pottage) from groats or bread soaked in milk or broth. Other possibilities were a dish of pulses with butter and onions, braised root vegetables, or cabbage. Dessert was usually buttermilk porridge in rural areas; among the urban merchants, however, pastry (for example, “shoemaker’s tart,” made from apples, bread, and eggs) and fruits were common. The main course was a dish of fish or meat, served, if possible, with green herbs, prunes, or currants. In wealthy households, this course might be followed by oysters or lobster with sweet sauces (Burema 1953: 96).

The relative simplicity of the bourgeois kitchen was reflected in the unique cookbook of Dutch origin De verstandige Kock of Sorghvuldige Huyshoudster (“The Prudent Cook or Careful Housekeeper”), published in Amsterdam in 1667. This frequently reprinted book was intended for wealthy merchants who owned country houses and had access to produce from their own gardens (gardening was a relatively new pursuit of the urban elite). The book opens with instructions for building a kitchen range that permitted the simultaneous preparation of separate dishes. Next, the book deals with the preparation of salads (both cooked and raw); vegetables (braised in sauces thickened with bread crumbs); meat, game, and fowl; salted fish, fish from the sea, and freshwater fish (the three separate chapters on fish indicate the importance of this food); and cakes, tarts, and pastry. The traditional Dutch pottage of meat and vegetables is present in the cookbook as a “Spanish hodgepodge,” and a few recipes are given for a festive mixed-meat dish, olipodrigo, that was widely known in Europe (Van’t Veer: 1966: 69-93).

In the eighteenth century, there was a growing French cultural influence among the elite, and a modest refinement can be discerned in cookery, table manners, table coverings, and tableware. The fork increasingly became an obligatory instrument after the 1750s, and pewter and silver, as decorative materials, were now preferred over copper or iron. For the upper classes, ambivalence about luxury at the table now belonged to the past. But at the same time, the gulf between rich and poor increased considerably, and the potato would soon become crucial to the survival of the latter.

That gulf was also manifested in poems and plays that ridiculed bourgeois virtues, such as, for example, the preference of aristocrats and their bourgeois imitators for game and white bread (Heerenbroot or “lord’s bread”) instead of rye bread and cheese (Schama 1987: 172; Zahn 1989: 48-52, 272). Indeed, a widespread contempt for the upper classes and their ostentation helped bring about a society without a steep social hierarchy or an influential central court. This situation, however, as suggested by Jack Goody (1982: 97-134) and Stephen Mennell (1985: 103-34), may have discouraged the rise of a uniquely Dutch haute cuisine.

Modernization and Industrialization: The Modern World (1800 to 1960)

In 1795, the Low Countries became a part of Napoleonic France. The administration by regents and merchants came to an end, and Amsterdam’s trade monopoly shifted to England. These developments increased the general impoverishment of many in the population that had already begun with economic deterioration during the late eighteenth century. Following the period of French control, the Low Countries became a kingdom ruled by the princes of Orange. William I (1813-40), the “king-merchant,” tried to restore the old Dutch commercial position and to give the country new economic life by the founding of trading companies, the construction of roads and canals, the reclamation of land, and other modernizing measures. But his efforts were more or less unsuccessful. Moreover, during his reign, there was the 1830 separation of Flanders and the Walloon provinces in the south from the rest of the nation; these united to become the country of Belgium.

The 1840s are well known in western European history as a decade of turbulence and revolution, caused in part by recurring shortages of food. This was certainly the case in the Netherlands, where the decade represents a low point in Dutch history. A dearth of grain put even bread and porridge out of reach of both the masses in the cities and many in the countryside. Meat and lard virtually disappeared from the diet, and countless people ate potatoes, carrots, and turnips, or perhaps only potatoes, morning, noon, and evening.

Indeed, from the end of the eighteenth century onward, potatoes increasingly became a staple food for the nation and a substitute for unaffordable bread. In 1847 and 1848 this near-exclusive dependence on potatoes had disastrous consequences, as the potato blight during these years triggered crop failures and famine. Food shortages were joined by epidemics—as was often the case in the preindustrial period—to produce high death rates, primarily in the strongly urbanized province of North Holland. Fortunately, many of the urban poor were helped by local administrations or by charitable institutions. Soup kitchens and eatinghouses provided portions of cheap or free food, and the thin soup (invented by Count Benjamin Rumford and composed of bone-jelly, beans, potatoes, and sometimes turnips or carrots) that became famous all over Europe was also popular in the Netherlands.

Slight improvements in the food supply were made intermittently during the decades that followed, but in the 1880s, a deep agricultural crisis, caused by a sudden profusion of overseas grain, again brought widespread shortages and misery, this time mainly in the countryside, as local grain prices tumbled. After 1890, however, substantial economic growth took place in the Netherlands, and industrialization, improved transportation, and an ensuing rise in income brought an expansion of the distribution and affordability of foodstuffs.

In the twentieth century, two World Wars and the economic crisis of the 1930s again caused shortages, but after the 1950s, food scarcity and hunger became things of the past, and a new age of plenty was under way. Paralleling these developments was the modernization of Dutch foodways that took place between 1880 and 1960.This modernization involved the diffusion of food and drink innovations, new dishes, and new sequences of meals that passed, in general, from the upper to the lower classes, from town to country, and from the western market-oriented regions to the eastern and southern provinces, hitherto geared to subsistence agriculture. At the start of this period, contrasts were sharp, but by the end, similarities were the norm, brought about by increasing education, democratization, and uniformity (Van Otterloo 1990: 127-84; Jobse-van Putten 1995: 499-506).

These were long-term processes that involved, among other things, what might be called the replacement of foods of necessity with foods of luxury, as qualitatively better and more expensive foods gradually became more accessible to more people. In other words, potatoes, pulses, root vegetables, and grains such as buckwheat and rye were little by little replaced by wheat, meat, butter, cheese, other dairy produce, and sugar. The change began with the replacement of rye (cheaper but nutritious) with wheat, most preferred but more expensive. The next phase, after World War II, saw a decline in the consumption of wheat (bread) but steep increases in the per capita intake of meat, cheese, and sugar. The position of potatoes as a staple food, strong during the entire nineteenth century, began to deteriorate after 1900, and after 1920, potato consumption declined at an accelerated pace (Van Otterloo 1990: 45-8).

Industrialization also had revolutionizing effects on food and meals in the production of foodstuffs and in the organization of work and the family. The shifting of food production to the factory was made possible by rapidly increasing scientific knowledge in relation to the mechanization and “chemicalization” of food. Industrially processed ingredients, like corn f lour, fécule (custard powder), “Oxo” (bouilion cubes), margarine, canned vegetables, meat, and fish, had become available at the end of the nineteenth century and were readily so during the interwar years. The food industry promoted its products through advertisements and educational campaigns, sometimes enlisting cookery teachers, even doctors, to inspire public trust in the new time- and energy-saving processed foods.

As elsewhere, the level of education in the Low Countries increased considerably after 1900. Women benefited from cooking classes and schools of home economics that taught the principles of hygiene and nutrition and, not incidentally, how to prepare tasty and healthy meals. (Although similar institutions were known elsewhere in western Europe, cookery books used in Dutch schools were distinguished by meticulous calculations of the prices of ingredients.) After 1930, radio and women’s magazines helped to diffuse such knowledge, and in this way, the culinary cultures of Europe, especially that of France, trickled down to the middle and lower classes in the cities and, finally, to the country people in the eastern and southern provinces of the Netherlands. Also crucial to such a democratization of taste was the metamorphosis of the kitchen range, along with an increasing ease of securing water, gas, and electricity.

The modern industrial organization of work and the family also brought about several important changes in the dishes of Dutch people and in their meal system as a whole. The number, type, and composition of meals one consumed had for centuries reflected social, regional, and rural-urban differences. But now there was a movement toward uniformity (Jobse-van Putten 1995: 275-498). The number of meals in a day became three—generally a cold breakfast, a cold lunch, and a hot dinner at about 6:00 in the evening. Coffee and tea, popular among the urban middle classes since the end of the eighteenth century, now diffused (coffee in particular) to the whole Dutch populace and were drunk throughout the day, both with and between meals; these drinks replaced to a great extent other beverages like beer, milk, and buttermilk. Tea, at first a prestigious middle-class beverage drunk in the afternoon with a biscuit or a sweet, began somewhat later than coffee to accompany breakfast or lunch.

At breakfast, potatoes, porridge, and pancakes gave way to just bread and tea or coffee. A cold lunch around noon was an invention of the industrial age, suited to the new rhythm of work. Initially, hot potato meals were taken to the factory, but these were soon replaced with packets of bread brought from home. Much later, canteens supplied foods for employees, as they did elsewhere in Europe. Dinner in the Netherlands evolved into a three-course hot meal, ideally with a starter, preferably (vegetable) soup based on a meat stock, a French custom that between 1900 and 1940 was gradually adopted in the Low Countries (where pork or chicken was used as a stock instead of beef).The main course (again ideally) consisted of potatoes and gravy, cooked vegetables with a sauce, and a meat dish. Following this was a sweet dessert of (partly industrially processed) pudding, custard, or fresh or preserved fruits.

At first, this highly prestigious bourgeois meal was consumed exclusively on Sundays and festive occasions in the countryside, but it was later adopted in the cities as well. Thus, the centuries-old regional diversity of meals, comprising pancakes, porridges, stews, and thick soups based on pulses, grain, rice, and turnips, largely disappeared.

We might pause to ask and answer the question of whether any aspect of culinary culture in the Netherlands during this period was typically Dutch and thus unique in Europe. This was certainly not the case with breakfast, which seems to have followed the common Continental evolutionary path. At most, it was different only because of particular bread fillings, like chocolate sprinkles. The singular addiction of the Dutch to coffee and tea breaks at work is perhaps a national sin, not elsewhere indulged to the same extent.

Lunch took on a very simple form; it was mainly served cold and without frills. Except for an occasional salad, it continued the Dutch tradition of simplicity and frugality. This was also generally true of dinner, which had a simple and straightforward character, in which quantity (but also nutritiousness) continued to be preferred above quality and refinement. Another illustration of simplicity and frugality was the late development of habitually eating out in the Netherlands. In Belgium, restaurants had become popular as early as 1840, but restaurants in the Netherlands were only hesitantly visited beginning in about the 1890s, and eating out did not become a socially acceptable habit until the 1960s and later (Scholliers 1993: 71).

Globalization and Civilization: The Low Countries since the 1960s

World War II shook the Netherlands much more violently than World War I, and the populace experienced the distress of occupation and a scarcity of goods, even the pangs of hunger. Following the war, reconstruction of the economy and the country’s infrastructure were priorities for the government and goals that required the utmost efforts of the entire population. Consumption was therefore postponed, and frugality continued.

The eating and drinking habits in the Netherlands were also patterned on the prewar model. No fundamental developments occurred except for a limited upsurge of interest in Indonesian food. This arose because of the tens of thousands of soldiers and people of mixed Dutch-Indonesian descent who flooded into the Netherlands during the years following the independence of this former Dutch colony.

Dutch postwar industriousness ultimately resulted in economic prosperity, and with it came a climate of widespread opposition to old ways and established authority. This was, of course, not unique to the Netherlands. In other Western countries, such as the United States, France, and Germany, similar developments took place, particularly at universities, where forces of change were aimed at questions of power and dependency in relationships between authorities and citizens, younger and older generations, and men and women. Institutional practices in the spheres of government, education, work, family life, and leisure were fundamentally altered by a cultural revolution in which the young formed the vanguard.

Frugality and hard work yielded to the drive for enjoyment, and pleasures such as popular music, sports, and travel became paramount. Consumption in the private sphere arose as a respected goal; certain brands of clothes became status symbols; homes were equipped with new furniture, televisions, washing machines, refrigerators, and other appliances. With Saturday as well as Sunday decreed days of leisure, weekends underwent a complete metamorphosis in family activities that encouraged the more convenient preparation of foods. As incomes rose and leisure hours increased, sociability became more important. Visits and parties were—as always—accompanied by food and drink, and traveling abroad led to exposure to the foodways of other cultures. Mediterranean countries such as France, Spain, Italy, and the former Yugoslavia became preferred holiday destinations for wide segments of the population.

At the same time, migrant workers came from areas of southern Europe to take jobs in the Netherlands. In the 1970s and 1980s, many foreigners, along with nonwhite citizens of the Caribbean, especially Suriname, were attracted by the high levels of welfare and social security, all of which transformed the Netherlands into a multicultural and, in some respects, a multiethnic society.

Other important transformations took place in the private sphere. These had to do with changing relationships among family members, now that people increasingly worked outside of the home. A growing divorce rate, an earlier independence of the young, and a rise in the number of old people combined to stimulate a substantial growth in the number of one-and two-person households. Such new and distinct conditions of life in the Netherlands led, among other things, to a fundamental alteration of the Dutch attitude toward food, which started among the middle classes but reached into innovative groups in the lower strata.

As elsewhere in the West, eating became less associated with a physical need to fill the stomach and more with a fashion of dining well, even elegantly, and the status that this conveyed. A flood of cookbooks, glossy cookery magazines, even serious treatises on culinary culture, swept into the bookshops and newsstands; cooking classes and culinary demonstrations on television became popular, and the media increasingly devoted columns and programs to the pleasures of the table.

Exotic herbs, spices, and other ingredients became available, and the figure of the gourmet was no longer one likely to be scorned or ridiculed. This does not mean that a genuine high culinary culture developed in the Netherlands, as it did in Belgium (Scholliers 1993), but it was the case that a “civilizing” of eating and taste spread throughout the various social strata. Eating out in restaurants and inviting nonfamilial guests for dinner at home—practices that formerly had never been common—gradually became the norm, and the per capita use of alcoholic beverages and soft drinks rose to heights never seen before. Between 1965 and 1990, the consumption of beer multiplied by two and a half times, wine by four, and soft drinks by slightly more than two and a half (CBS 1994).

The new and discriminating Dutch taste was not characterized by uniformity. Rather, there were various (and sometimes contradictory) trends, as international foodstuffs were increasingly distributed across the globe. A demand for exotic food was first apparent in the success of Chinese and Indonesian restaurants, which appealed to the Dutch because the food was cheap and large quantities were provided. Asian food was followed by Mediterranean cuisine from the various countries visited by vacationing Dutch, and from this point, culinary inquisitiveness spread to include foods from more distant parts of the world, like Mexico and Japan.

Indeed, the Dutch developed a world cuisine of their own, although the exotic dishes that comprised it were often not relished in their original forms and strong flavors but were shaped and moderated to meet the Dutch preference for bland tastes. Another international eating trend was adopted in the form of fast food from the United States, which had, in many respects, replaced France as a postwar cultural model for the Netherlands.

Like others in the West, the Dutch have embraced the tendency to make cooking in the home as easy as possible, which has meant a greater use of convenience food in preparing meals, and the use of snack foods has become marked. Many working housewives and mothers (whose numbers have increased substantially) now regularly escape their previously important duty of cooking for the family, and in fact, the rhythms of work and leisure of individual household members no longer coincide, which has changed the pattern of meals. Nowadays, the hot family meal in the evening might be the only one shared; yet even then, individual members of the household frequently have other commitments that oblige them to use the microwave to heat their share of the meal at a later time.

The consumption of snacks (described as grazing) in between, instead of, or in combination with regular meals has increased considerably. In addition, many restaurants, ranging from very exclusive to very simple, have come into existence to meet the new needs of the different strata of the population. Between 1965 and 1990, the number of restaurants multiplied five times (CBS 1994). Typically, these establishments borrow from cuisines the world over: snack bars and take-out restaurants feature American hamburgers, Indonesian nasi, Belgian patates frites, and Italian pizza.

As elsewhere, such changes in eating habits have brought anxiety about extremely processed food and concomitant concerns about obesity, food allergies, eating disorders, and food additives and contaminants. Vegetarianism and other movements supporting specific dietary principles have grown in popularity and in acceptance. In short, various trends and countertrends emphasizing the enjoyment, but also the dangers, inherent in food developed in contradiction with one another. This is, indeed, a remarkable change in a country that has never been characterized by a pronounced culinary culture! Both developments may be interpreted as aspects of the globalization of eating and drinking in the Netherlands (Elias 1994).


In this chapter, it has been suggested that the development of Dutch eating habits over the centuries has been influenced by a complex set of interrelated economic, political, and sociocultural forces. Processes of state formation and nation building, civilization, and democratization have marked the culinary culture of the Low Countries since the Middle Ages.

Until the last few decades, the Dutch maintained a preference for cheap, simple, and nourishing food, even though their cooks had obtained ideas and inspiration from foreigners, particularly the French, since the Middle Ages. That a high culinary culture was never created in the Netherlands differs greatly from the experience of Belgium, where, in the last 150 years, one has developed that is much appreciated abroad as well as at home.

The lack, however, of a haute cuisine in the Netherlands does not mean that the Dutch retained their seventeenth-century habits of binge eating and drinking at festivals. Rather, the French influence on daily life among the elite increased substantially in the eighteenth century, with Dutch patricians losing their bourgeois mentality and coming to resemble aristocrats in the usual sense. This change increasingly shaped their preferences and manners according to French (courtly) ways, particularly in dress and in the choice of dishes and recipes. The growing “civilizing of appetite” (Mennell 1985: 20-40) impeded immoderate “guzzling” among broader strata of the urban middle classes and encouraged them at the same time to permit themselves the luxury of refinement in eating, tableware, and table manners. Later rounds of democratization and civilization took place during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and ultimately reached farmers and other country people and urban workers.

In the aftermath of World War II, new culinary models from America, the Mediterranean, and the (postcolonial) Far East became available. Subsequently, a decrease in the consumption of bread and potatoes, backbones of the earlier Dutch meal, bore witness to fundamental changes at the Dutch table. The movement from potatoes to pasta has meant a fading both of the traditional composition of meals and of national boundaries. To eat in a typically Dutch way seems to mean “going global” in the Netherlands at the turn of the twenty-first century.