WHAT’S ON THE MENU TONIGHT

Our recent Thanksgiving Day feast with family got me thinking about the food traditions that have become a part of this special American holiday every year.  Reflecting on my own menu for the day, I noticed that none of the many offerings on my table had any roots in my Dutch heritage. That seemed particularly strange to me having grown up in just a third-generation Dutch emigrate family.

This omission may be due to a lack of recipes handed down from my grandmother, Jennie Smouter Reyst, and also the blended culture that existed within the city of Detroit from the time my great-grandparents arrived in 1890 until the late 1960s. While most dinner tables on Thanksgiving Day feature roast turkey, the similarities end there across the various regions of the United States, and particularly among families in the Metropolitan Detroit area. From vegetables to salads and desserts, and even how the stuffing and potatoes are prepared for the Thanksgiving feast, are all influenced by the area we live and grew up in.

From the time my great-grandparents arrived in Detroit and settled on its east side, cultural foods abound.  From 1890 through the early part of the twentieth century, German influence on the east side and Russian on the west side could be seen in the food markets and bakeries in Detroit. Then by the mid-1900s Polish, Italian and Jewish immigration would add to this cultural mix. From a very early age, growing up in an east-side Detroit neighborhood comprised of German, Polish and Italian second-generation emigrant families, I was exposed to foods introduced by these various cultures, such as spagetti, pizza, galumpis (cabbage rolls), pierogis (Polish dumplings filled with either cheese or kraut), kielbasa (Polish sausage), Chrusciki (Polish angel wing cookies), paczki (Polish Fat Tuesday filled doughnuts), saurbraten, sauerkraut and sausage to name just a few.

So what happened to the Dutch influence? In contrast to the Dutch emigrants who settled in the western regions of Michigan, where there existed a large Dutch community extending from as far north as Muskegon and as far south of Holland, including Grand Rapids, the Dutch community within Detroit was relatively small in comparison to the growing population of this major industrialized city in America. My great-grandmothers probably prepared their first Thanksgiving Day feast, featuring foods that they were most familiar with from their homeland. But as the years went by, and the difficulty of obtaining food and staples required in those recipes, their menus likely slowly changed to blend more with their new home surroundings.

What special treats would Helena Reyst and Adriaantje Smouter, my great-grandmothers, have fixed during the holiday season? Having absolutely no idea, despite actually visiting The Netherlands (typical college student, I stuck with what was most familiar to me – McDonalds), I set out to find out what Dutch cuisine is actually like. Today’s Dutch menu is strongly influenced by all the cultures it has openly embraced since its golden age in the 1600s. So you are unlikely to find a strictly “Dutch” restaurant in the major cities of The Netherlands. They also eat much healthier today than at the turn of the twentieth century. But Helena’s and Adriaantje’s dinner menus would have probably featured foods that were higher in fat. Their holiday dinner would certainly have included a homemade bread, some fresh cheese, and maybe Jan Hagel (Dutch almond) cookies for dessert.

So I have added a new category for you to explore, Dutch Cuisine, and I will post some traditional Nederlander recipes for you to enjoy. I posted my first one, Dutch Apple Fritters; check it out and watch for new additions.

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