Saturday, December 31, 2011

Destination Unknown

It's that time of year when everybody resolves to eat better and exercise more. To be a better housekeeper, or keep a better lab journal (well, that's me, and that's a weekly resolution of mine). To go skydiving once, fly a glider, ski a black diamond, try a totally new food, go to church regularly. To lose those final 10 lbs (or start with losing 10 lbs), to become eco-conscious, to just be better people than we all were in 2011.

Behavioral experts, however, say that change only happens when you have a measurable metric with which to measure progress. If you resolve to spend less money, for instance, you'd be better off with a concrete goal along the lines of "not spending more than €20/week on lunch". Eating better would be rephrased to "having one vegetable with every meal" (broccoli for breakfast, anyone?). So in keeping with the science, my resolutions for this year don't include eating better and exercising more, though that is implicit in the first one, which is to run the 10k Marikenloop in May of this year. It's a 5k race with a 10k option, in case you're interested. It's also a women's only race (sorry, guys). It's no Zevenheuvelenloop, certainly not in terms of scale or grandeur, but it's a nice way to ease back into running, I think.

Another resolution of mine is to finish a rough draft of a book. I'd started writing a few bits and pieces of it while I was unemployed, but I couldn't get very far. I didn't have any plans as to how I wanted to structure it, which was problem number one. Problem number two was that, between my job hunt and my other little writing pets, it became more of a drag to work on, probably because of problem number one. My NaNoWriMo novel this year ran into the same problem. I am not a seat-of-my-pants writer--I really don't know why I keep acting like I am.

My final resolution this year is to improve my Dutch language skills. This will be awkward, but I think I should be able to get my lab mates on board, as far as the speaking bits go. Fear not, international readers: Outside Looking In will continue to be written in English, though perhaps I will introduce a "word of the week" column. That, however, is not a resolution. I've never been very good about weekly things, whether it's photos or posts or things like that.

But really, the goal is to make it through 2012. Beyond that--where we'll end up, what we'll be doing, who we'll be--the destination is beautifully vague. Enjoying the way there--that's the real treat.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

...Number Fifty-One

First of all: thanks for all the good wishes for my back. For the first few days it felt so terrible that I was almost certain it was a herniated disc, but after a while it became clear that it was a very bad episode of sciatica. Which is also not-fun, but also a lot less serious.

Secondly: a while ago I posted a list called, approximately, "You know you've been living in the Netherlands for too long when..." My boyfriend, upon reading that post, had a few laughs, and then began suggesting other ways to know that you've gone native: random cravings for kroketten; loving patat oorlog; and getting annoyed when people confuse Sinterklaas with Christmas.

I realize that I'm a little late to this fight--the article was posted about a day after I realized that I could no longer sit down. But any expat should have been thoroughly schooled in the difference between Sinterklaas (presents for being good) with Christmas (supposed birth of Jesus Christ--he was, I've heard, actually born in March; the bit about angels singing, though, is absolutely true), especially if you've been living in the Netherlands for as long as Ms. Olien has. Come to think on it, Americans longing to de-commercialize Christmas might take a page from the Dutch (or Spanish and/or Catholic countries) and separate the gift-giving extravaganza from the religious aspect of the holidays. Sinterklaas is shamelessly commercialized; Christmas is a night for fancy foods and family. While gifts are exchanged on Christmas, retailers don't make a big fuss about impending Christmas doom (the Dutch do that to themselves--a weird sort of conformist guilt).

But what I really wanted to write about was the irritating business of calling Holland's Zwarte Piet a racist construction. Which it is, but in the grand scheme of things, it ranks (in my mind) as a relatively mild offense, somwhere along the lines of Prince Willem-Alexander unwittingly swearing to his Mexican audience. Why is this? Because NOBODY (except maybe small children) believes that Sint en Piet are real. They are no longer caricatures--they are characters in a nice little story line that gets told to kids every year. Zwarte Piet, it is true, began as a bumbling servant to Saint Nicholas--if you go back to the original-original story, he was a Moorish convert to Christianity who elected to serve the saint out of gratitude for having a shot at obtaining Grace. But Saint Nicholas has also gone through his own rebranding: Sint, in days of old, ran what was essentially a labor camp for bad children in Spain, and would literally beat the bad ones (try getting that one into a PC-classroom these days). These days, Piet is the one with all the awesome magical powers, and Sint just leaves a lump of coal in your shoe.

"Yes, the story changes, but that doesn't make it any less bad," some people might say. "It's still wrong to put on blackface. Intents don't matter."

I would argue, however, that intention matters every bit as much as the act itself. If not, then movies such as Ghandi, Memoirs of a Geisha, The House of Sand and Fog, and The Good Earth would be deemed terribly offensive (and maybe they were, by some, but I think it's safe to say that, since these are all mainstream movies, they're probably well-acclaimed in most circles). In two of them, the venerable Ben Kingsley gets a tan and magically becomes India's greatest 20th-century hero, or an Arab-American trying to scrape by. Memoirs of a Geisha was noticeably devoid of any lead character who was actually Japanese, while The Good Earth cast Paul Muni (Eastern European, and Jewish to boot) as a Chinese farmer. The outrage at Zwarte Piet and lack of outrage over these characters is, I would argue, also a form of racism: what is it that makes black people exempt from being portrayed by people of other races, but perfectly okay for people of other races to portray people of other races?

Suffice it to say, I stand by my original assertion that as far as racist imagery is concerned, the US has a lot more to answer for than just a bunch of silly white people putting on makeup and handing out kruidnoten to the kids. And that, as far as discrimination and race go, it's not all black-and-white. Literally.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Disc break

I'm going to ask your pardon again, for putting up with a break in the admittedly-not-very-regular programming. Somehow or other, I've managed to hurt my back, to the point where I can't sit in a chair for more than 10 minutes at a time.

Hopefully posts will resume soon, as my back gets better, but for now, I've got to get up and get moving again before it twangs any harder than it is now.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Last week, when drawing up the weekly dinner menu, I decided to make a pumpkin soup. Okay--I decided Karel should make a pumpkin soup. In the course of grocery shopping, then, I diligently bought a pumpkin, and put it in an obvious location, the basket where I keep the currently-in-use bread and stuff-that-should-be-at-room-temperature, like bananas and slowly-ripening kiwi.

At least, I thought it was obvious there. Somehow, when Tuesday night came around, Karel looked everywhere but the basket and decided that I'd forgotten to get the pumpkin and went out and procured two more. He used one for the soup, so on Saturday we still had two pumpkins floating around, twiddling their thumbs, waiting to be put to good use.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Dutch pumpkins aren't like American pumpkins. Pompoenen are a lot smaller, for starters, and I believe they are of a different breed than their American counterparts. Besides being smaller and more deeply orange, they are also a bit sweeter. And nobody carves them up into jack-o-lanterns. Differences aside, though, you can pretty much treat them like any other gourd, which is to say "roast until tender, scoop out flesh, and enjoy". Dutch recipes, strangely enough (yet typically Dutch), call for the thing to be hacked apart and/or peeled, and then boiled. Newbies to the Netherlands and pompoenen in general should disregard any recipe advice that tells you to peel a gourd, and just hack it in half and pop it in a hot oven for about 30 minutes. Trust me when I say it's safer that way.

So on Saturday morning, as Karel was about to leave for work, I wondered aloud what to do with the pumpkins. "Maybe I'll try a pumpkin pie," I mused.

"I never had one. What is it?"

I may not be the most perfectly-integrated expat, but I certainly don't go about wishing for things like Thanksgiving and whining about missing fireworks on the Fourth of July. I don't bake apple pies (too much work, peeling all those apples) and I don't go about comparing Nijmegen to New York City. But somehow, Karel's confession that he'd NEVER HAD PUMPKIN PIE brought out a wave of Americana in me and I decided right then and there that he was going to get some. Well, as close to pumpkin pie as you can get with a Dutch pompoen, anyway. Never mind that I'd never made pumpkin pie before and never mind that I had no idea where to start, or even an idea of which recipe I wanted to use. Karel's gastronomic innocence with respect to one of America's finest traditions needed to be remedied, and damned if I would stand by and let him flounder in culinary darkness.

I didn't use a recipe, but trust me when I say making a pumpkin pie from scratch is so easy you almost don't need one. Roast the pumkin for 30-40 minutes, until the flesh is tender, and then scoop out the "guts" (seeds, stringy bits that hold the seeds in place). Separate your pound of flesh from the skin and set it aside. I did all this the night before, but there's no reason you can't do the next step as soon as the thing cools down enough not to cook the egg.

I used condensed milk, but you can also use cream--put the pumpkin and a bit of milk/cream (1/4 cup, thereabouts) into a food processor, and add an egg. Liquify everything--the consistency should be like that of a milkshake. If you need to, add more liquid. Add cinnamon, powdered ginger, nutmeg, allspice, cardamom, etc etc to taste. If you were an idiot like me and didn't make sure to get sweetened condensed milk, you can add a bit of sugar. I used dark brown sugar (~ 2 Tbsp) a bit of normal sugar (~ 1/4 cup)/

I go through the trouble to make pie crust, in part because the stuff sold in supermarkets is a bit too fluffy for my taste. Usually it goes off without a hitch, but as you can see from the overbaked bits, somehow I managed to flub it this time. Nevertheless, as the crust plays second fiddle to the divine filling, I decided to proceeed.

The end result was a velvety smooth hunk of delicious sitting in a decadently flaky crust, and every bit as delicious as I remember pumpkin pie to be--better, even, since it wasn't over-sweetened and you could actually taste the other stuff in it. I'm actually kind of hoping Karel will think it's not quite for him, because it'll leave more for me.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Mad Thrift

It's no secret that I love thrift stores. Even in the US, my preferred supplier of things like coats and hats were secondhand, though that was mostly because I like men's hat--at least, unusually-styled hats--and thrift stores were the only places I could find such things at prices that I liked. In Maastricht, Tuesday nights would find me more often than not at Mattie's Kringloopwinkel, where I procured my furniture. Nijmegen, though, hid her thrift stores well, and it took me a while before I learned enough about the city to find all of them:

By far my favorite is the Ideƫle Kringloopwinkel. It's well-hidden, but it has by far the most interesting--and most buyable--stuff. I've bought something almost every time I've gone there, which says a lot considering how far out of the way it is from everything, and how small the shop is. Despite its small size, it boasts a good selection of stuff, and I've managed to find such diverse objects as laundry baskets (matching style and color with the one we already had, even!), a wine rack, a trenchcoat--and all at reasonable secondhand prices, too. You cannot pay with a PIN pass, alas, so make sure you have cash before you walk in.

Het Goed is a chain of thrift stores, and as such it has by far the most stuff and the biggest selection, arranged across four floors. It is actually pretty spacious, unlike most thrift stores, and you can look around and poke into stuff without incurring the wrath of a grumbly clerk. I like to buy books there--they have an ever-changing selection of English-language books, and most of them are gently-used. I usually pick up small household items in Het Goed, things like baskets or spray bottles. They have an impressive selection of electronics, which is how we came by our speakers. However, Het Goed almost never has anything truly wonderful, which is why, as useful as it is, it's not my favorite.

Amaretto is a little tiny shop that bills itself as an antique store, though in reality it's another thrift shop. It's where I purchased our Galileo thermometer, and I'm still considering buying a ye-olde otoscope kit that's been sitting in a display case for ages, as a gift for Karel. However, the shop is impossibly tiny, and incredibly cramped--it's a bit evocative of Olivander's Wand Shop, wehere every last nook and cranny is occupied by something or other, to the point where the proprietor has taken to sitting in a chair by the window rather than at the cash register so he can read his newspaper. The prices are a bit higher than you'd expect, but on the other hand, many of the goods are one-of-a-kind, or at least very difficult to come by anywhere else in the city.

The Habbekrats is better known as "the place you get your fireworks from", as every December half the store is cleared of all its stuff to make room for a massive display of explosive projectiles. They have a bit of everything--I bought my binoculars there, a massive set of 8 x 50 lenses with coated glass, and of a surprisingly high quality glass, too. Most of the time, the stuff there is crap, but every now and then you find something good. We bought our coffee table there--their delivery policy is similar to that of Het Goed, in that you arrange with the store owner when you can be there, and he shows up within those times with a truck and your furniture. Unlike most kringloopwinkels, the Habbekrats does not carry clothing, although just across the street is a consignment shop in case you really need a clothing fix.

It's important to remember this cardinal rule if you're thrifting: if you don't absolutely love it, don't buy it. You don't save money if you spend it on something you'll never use/never wear. Happy hunting!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sugar and Spice

Despite my reputation in certain circles for calorically-dense baked goods, in my everyday cooking (what I do of it), I don't really pack fats or sugars into my food. Most days, I make it a point to avoid sugar, though I do enjoy a Milk Break during morning coffee breaks, and some cookies with my nightly dose of St. John's Wort (it's seriously vile stuff, otherwise). But Dutch cookies are, for the most part, not very sweet--two Milk Break biscuits have only two-thirds the sugar of three Oreos--and, perhaps more relevant to healthy eating, don't contain high-fructose corn syrup.

I see this as a confirmation of Robert Lustig's theory that fat (consumed in modest amounts) doesn't make you fat, fructose makes you fat. Most Americans who are reasonably educated about nutrition and good eating are appalled at the quantity of carbohydrates the Dutch consume: bread in the mornings, sandwiches for lunch, ontbijtkoek with coffee, and a stamppot loaded with bacon bits for dinner. The terrible nutritive state of your average cloggie is only emphasized by little news bits such as this one, saying that your average child manages to eat only one piece of fruit every week, while your average Jap eats one-and-a-half--while the recommended serving is two. That's two pieces of fruit per week. I don't know which is more appropriate, being shocked that it's so low, or amazed that scurvy isn't an issue any more.

Edit: Frank has now pointed out that the DutchNews site I referenced is a terrible source for facts and that the actual recommendations were for 2 pieces of fruit per day. So really, the Dutch don't do that badly. But it says a lot that I was willing to believe "per week", don't it?

But while most Dutch food is stacked to the ears with starches (simple or otherwise), there isn't any high-fructose corn syrup hidden away in most of it. I've tried to find a food that has high-fructose corn syrup in it, and despite my best efforts, I've failed. I'm certain that sodas, such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, are fairly loaded with it, but the fact that I don't know for certain just goes to show how frequently it occurs to me to buy it (which is never). Even the fluffiest of fluffy white breads contains flour, water, yeast, and maybe a preservative and maybe a vitamin supplement--but no fructosestroop, as it's called in Dutch. The powdered soups that I have regularly for lunch, the sauces that you can buy for your patat frites, the cookies stuffed with marzipan and glazed with sugar--they might all have sugar, it is true, but they probably don't contain HFCS.

Of course diets and lifestyles and national trends and nutrition are more complicated than simply not having HFCS in anything. And who knows, maybe the Dutch would keep their elongated physiques even if HFCS were added to their diets (hell, I caught whooping cough here, and I've been vaccinated against it in the US). Genetics, environment--who knows? Our weekly pot of spaghetti, at any rate, hasn't seemed to do us any harm yet.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Allerhande Everywhere

Every two months or thereabouts, the Albert Heijn publishes another edition of its in store magazine, the Allerhande. Like most free publications, it has more ads than content, and, as expected, is geared to "help" you make budget-conscious and nutritious meal choices for your family--by shamelessly plugging Albert Heijn products whenever and wherever they can. Nevertheless, it is one of the few things that suits my Dutch reading level--hindered more by my lack of patience than my lack of understanding--as the articles in it are short and brief and there are lots of excellent pictures of food. Though stamppot never did manage to look sexy.

The Allerhande is stuffed with recipes: 10 ways to make soup! 15 ways to make stamppot! A week's worth of dinner ideas! Special (but easy) recipes for the holidays! These recipes are not especially complicated, and they actually produce quite a decent meal--what I like to think of as "in-law" level food; as in, something you'd serve your in-laws to show that you can cook, but not something so delicious that they'll want to invite themselves over every day. Much though I love my almost-in-laws, our apartment is small, and stressing about food is something I hate doing.

I am a rather lazy cook, to tell the truth. I'll cheat whenever I can, and there have been days (mostly when Karel's working) that I've taken a can of something from our pantry, and a fork, and called it a meal. It's not that I don't enjoy the process of cooking. It's more that it takes me a while to get into my little groove, and most days I just don't have the time to settle into a rhythm. Karel, on the other hand, loves cooking, but his work schedule is so erratic that we might manage to have dinner together once a month.

But next week, Karel is at home. And that means lots of good eats...based entirely on stuff out of the Allerhande. Even the stamppot that we'd decided to make came out of the Allerhande, and with the sole exception of our weekly spaghetti, there isn't a single recipe on it that we've thought of ourselves. It'll be a strange week, full of food that we wouldn't normally eat--zuurkool and pompoen and spitskool and paddenstoelen fond (actually, the recipe called for a bouillon, but I couldn't find it). That I am actually looking forward to eating these very Dutch things is a bit scary. But not nearly as scary as the thought that, if we like the things, and if they aren't too terribly complicated to make, we might actually start depending on the Allerhande for future meal suggestions.