Dutch food history: a short introduction

Here follows a short introduction into Dutch food history (1200 words, about 6 minutes). Please refer to this website when citing (parts of) the text.

The Netherlands before the year 1900

The food history of what is now called the Netherlands starts, of course, with its first inhabitants. But it only gets truly fascinating, in my opinion, around the start of the twentieth century. Before 1900, the most important moment in many centuries had been the ‘Columbian Exchange’. Contact between the America’s and Eurasia in the fifteenth century meant that Americans became acquainted with things like apples and rice, but also got to see (and eat) pigs and chickens for the first time. On the other side of the Atlantic, foods like potatoes, tomatoes, cocoa and chillies were now available to Europeans.

Yet most of these foodstuffs did not reach ordinary people. The majority of the population of North-western Europe was so poor, that their meals consisted of porridge or – after the Exchange – potatoes. Indeed, for most of Dutch food history, meat was so pricey that many were vegetarians by necessity. Only meals in the houses of the well-off were more varied, and more internationally oriented.

Dutch food history. A festive meal, a big banquet. Preparations in the kitchen
Preparations for a big feast. David Teniers the younger, Keukeninterieur [Kitchen interior] (1644). Source: Web Gallery of Art.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the income of average workers in the Netherlands rose. As a result, they too could afford a more varied diet. Consequently, the entire population slowly came to see food as more than just fuel: it could be used to give meaning to life. This marked a notable change in Dutch food history: now the food culture of all Dutch people became much more interesting to study.

1900-1945: Growing prosperity … and adversity

Around the beginning of the twentieth century, the diet of the average worker was still fairly uncomplicated, but generally included some tea, a little butter or lard, and even some meat. However, the First World War was a setback. Especially during its last winter, the whole of the Netherlands needed to tighten its belt. The magazine of the schools for home economics gave instructions on how to do just that:

Scarcity during World War I. A Recipe for a meager dinner
Recipe from In en Om de Woning. Up to date vegetable soup.1918.

Then, after World War I, came the interwar period. It would turn out to form another important moment in Dutch food history. Because not even the economic crisis of the 1930s could prevent a quickly rising life standard for the lower classes. Processed foods became more popular among all segments of the population. At this time, people stocked up on condensed milk, cookies, and stock cubes. The grocer’s greatest pride were canned foods, an invention (c. 1800) that released fruits and vegetables from their seasonality. People in the Netherlands started to consume more fruits and vegetables in the interbellum, but also more meat, eggs, sugar and dairy. The national diet was now becoming much more complex.

The Second World War had a huge impact on the Netherlands. With respect to the history of food, existing shortages culminated in the hunger winter of 1944-’45. As a consequence, thousands of people died. When searching for the word hunger (‘honger’) in Dutch newspapers, the difference in impact between the two world wars is easily gauged:

Dutch food history. Hunger during World War II.
‘Honger’ [hunger] in Dutch newspapers. Observe the potato famine (1840s) and World War I (1910s). Source: PoliticalMashup Ngramviewer. Dataset: Delpher.

Changes in the food chain

After the war, some shortages lasted for quite some time (sugar, coffee). Moreover, the Dutch government made sure wages were kept low (1945-1963), which meant that true prosperity came only after the 1950s. But even in the fifties, the European food chain kept changing. It saw a combination of technological advances, the up-scaling of companies and growing productivity. Notably, the first supermarkets opened, and the variety of food products increased greatly. Manufacturers let their imagination run wild, not just in the Netherlands, but in Belgium as well:

Chocolate bar. Growing prosperity means new products in the Low countries
Chocolade bar with tomato taste (1960). Source: Femmes d’Aujourd’hui (Belgian women’s magazine).

We’ve come to the most fascinating era of Dutch food history. Three themes stand out when it comes to the determinants of food choice in the post-war era: health, convenience, and exoticism.

The importance of health

These trends, of course, were far from new in 1945. Health, for instance, had been of great part in food marketing for decades, whether producers were trying to sell biscuits, chocolate milk, or beer:

Health as a selling point and marketing term. Dutch food history. Advertisement for biscuits
Advertisement for biscuits (1901). Source: Algemeen Handelsblad.
Advertentie voor chocolademelk (1932) uit het Algemeen Handelsblad. Voedselgeschiedenis van Nederland. Jon Verriet.
Advertisement for chocolate milk (1932). Source: Algemeen Handelsblad.

Advertisement for beer (1954). Source: Algemeen Handelsblad.

Many manufacturers tried to associate their foods and beverages with known food fads, though the real health effects of their products – unsurprisingly – remained unclear. Dutch food history is full of different nutrition hypes. The consumption of yogurt, for instance, grew in part because of newspaper articles with titles such as ‘Act like a Bulgarian… Drink yogurt and become a centenarian!’ But while some goods promised eternal youth, other products connoted sin. Undoubtedly, many were tempted by snacks and candy, despite efforts by the Dutch government to steer consumers the ‘right’ way with their Disc of Five (a variation on the Basic Seven). Similarly, the Consumer Guide tried to scare its readers straight:

Dutch food history and the Consumer guide. Fatty foods and healthy diets
The Consumer Guide tests snacks (1976).

The rise of convenience foods

As it turned out, ‘unhealthy’ foods were popular part because they were often convenience foods. And with a growing student population and more women working out of the house, demand for convenience foods was expanding. Though for a few decades, the Dutch were conflicted about these foods. A housewife’s use of ready meals, for instance, suggested to many that she cared little for her husband and children. However, the 1970s were a turning point in Dutch food history, because second-wave feminists made sure that women’s enormous sacrifices for their families were no longer treated like a law of nature. Convenience foods, then, were both a stimulant as well as a consequence of women’s emancipation. Manufacturers took note:

Dutch food history. National cuisine versus exoticism and gastronomic adventure
Conimex advertisement. Source: Margriet, 1970.

Exoticism: culinary adventures in the Netherlands

This advertisement also shows that processed foods and ‘exotic’ tastes were a perfect match in the post-war era. Certaintly, going out to dinner became more popular: by the year 1960, no less than 44 Chinese-Indonesian restaurants were operating in Amsterdam. But at home, meals became a little bit more experimental as well.

In urban areas, ingredients like cumin and soy sauce had been available for a long time, but the white middle-classes had felt no rush in introducing such novelties. Consequently, people’s first encounter with ‘foreign’ cuisine was very cautious. 1950s and 1960s cookery books met housewives halfway: what if you used cow’s milk instead of coconut milk and tomato paste instead of chillies? In Margriet, a 1950 recipe for bouillabaisse included the well-known herring. Hence few culinary rules existed for trying something new, resulting in true fusion cooking like ‘Italian nasi goreng’ and ‘babi pangang with Cognac’. Accordingly, no routes were left unexplored for a little variety in the Dutch kitchen.

Our current diet

Dutch food history. Bouillabaisse French soup, exoticism. and culinary authenticity
Bouillabaisse with herring. Source: Margriet, 1950.

In conclusion, ideas about food became of increasing significance to food consumption during the twentieth century. Consequently, current infatuations with of ‘superfoods’, the ready-made meal, and the quest for another little-known, truly authentic restaurant are all expressions of our need to give meaning to food consumption. In the past century, the desire for culinary excitement or the search for eternal life have become of influence to the consumption patterns of more than just a select few. And though economic and technological factors remain essential determinants of food habits, now these cultural factors have become of fundamental importance in understanding our current diet.

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