Saturday, August 28, 2010

Crab massacre

America is one of the easiest places to spend your vacation. Still, a lot of people in Holland think of it is a major tour de force to go there. There are many stories I can write about my USA and Canada travels, and maybe I will, but let me focus on one important aspect of vacation: food. The Dutch are notorious for being weary about food in other countries. Time to set things straight here.

The older I get, the more I appreciate sitting down and relax over a meal at the end of a vacation day. Mind you: not the food I prepared myself, but that is served to me in a restaurant. But I am not your typical Dutchman here. The Dutch do not trust food outside their own borders. In fact, the reason why so many Dutch prefer to spend their vacation in a caravan, or RV trailer as it is known in North America, is their fear for foreign food. Better take your home in scaled down size with you and prepare the meals yourself, or bring out that BBQ as much as possible when sitting in front of your caravan. I’m sure that this fear is one of the reasons that the Dutch are convinced that you can only spend your vacation in the North America in a rented RV, no matter it will limit them big time in the possibilities they have. I’ve never done that, and I’m sure I would have seen a lot less of that fascinating continent if I did instead of renting SUVs. I also know people who think that the culinary achievement of American cuisine can best be enjoyed in McDonalds and Pizza Hut – these are the only eateries they will see from inside, because these franchises are the only ones they know.

There is good food and there is bad food and you’ll find both in any country. My vacation budget will not allow for dining in high class places. I did once in Hyannis Port, close to the Kennedy compounds, and my tip was returned with a printed card, stating that “due to the location and the reputation of our restaurant, a 20% minimum tip is required”. But to get back to my point, there are enough non chain restaurants, often even in smallest of towns, that serve a very reasonable dinner. And there are franchise restaurants that are worth trying out. I’m very pleased with The Olive Garden, that serves Italian food without charging too much. And I must say, the ultimate in hospitality ever enjoyed in a restaurant was in an Atlanta Olive Garden. When the waiter brought me my second glass of excellent Pinot Grigio, he asked me “would you like the bottle, sir?” Now, that was a bit overdoing it – me being the only at the table to drink wine. So, I politely declined. “Are you sure, sir?” the waiter insisted. “You don’t want to take the bottle with you? It’s past nine, and we will probably not have any orders for Pinot Grigio anymore tonight, so the bottle is yours.” I do not think you would ever hear this in a Dutch restaurant. Put the cork on, in the fridge, and use it tomorrow.

Another pleasant chain restaurant is Applebee’s. The food is nice, very reasonably priced, and the restaurants have a very agreeable sports café mood. There is a slight problem however with Applebee’s if you like to take your time. Applebee’s may not be a fast food restaurant, but they really like it when you finish your food fast. Barely after swallowing the last bite of your steak, you are asked if you care for some dessert. And the dessert is accompanied by the bill. That is something we are not used too. Dining out is a night out in Holland, and it takes at least two hours from our first drink until the coffee to finish it all off. Rushing is however not necessary in the Old Country Buffet ‘all you can eat’ for 8 bucks or so restaurants you’ll find in the Midwest. Oh my, I have never seen anything like that. ‘All you can eat’ in Holland usually limits to spare ribs, or salad bars, but what unfolds before your eyes in the Old Country Buffet borders on the unbelievable for this modest Dutchman. Chicken, roast beef, ribs, steak, soup, potatoes, rice, pasta… you name it, it is there. And a wild variety of desserts, not to mention to free non alcoholic beverages. I still have that vision of that maybe seven year old kid walking with a plate pilled up with all kinds of desserts – walking carefully, otherwise he would have spilled ice cream, or pie, or custard, everything was there on his plate on top of each other. “Look Mom, what I have!”

Is there an American cuisine? I don’t know. America is a big melting pot and that translates into the many different dishes you can choose from. If I had to make a choice, I’d say that seafood is the most American food you can have. Nobody can make seafood like the Americans and Canadians. And that is why I chose to stop by at a typical Maryland Chesapeake Bay seafood restaurant that advertised the region's famous blue crabs. Men’s Journal, which I read before travelling to this region, advised to try this Chesapeake culinary specialty and who was I to doubt that? What resulted was the most bizarre dining experience I’ve had in my life. The fact that we got dressed in plastic aprons should have said enough, but feeling ridiculous we took these off soon. And then the horror began. A bucket load of crabs was served, together with two hammers and the warning: do absolutely not eat the devil’s fingers. What devil’s fingers? Looking around I noticed a lot of people slashing their crabs. I will never forget the nun, clad in plastic, hammering with so much force on her seafood, as if she had to release years of accumulated frustration. What unfolded before our eyes, and where we were part of, was nothing more like a cheap splatter movie. Parts of crabs were spitting in my face, while their legs were broken off in search of some exquisite meat. The photo says enough – I might add though that it is my travelling companion looking in dismay there at his food. An attractive blonde woman noticed our inexperience and bewilderment. She smiled at me, behind her biker boyfriend, as if she understood and was sending me her encouragement. I still remember her look, crab leg hanging from her mouth and grease slowly dripping from her chin. Somehow her smile was even erotic this way.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Naked investment in life

Steam of Life, a movie from Joonas Berghäll & Mika Hotakainen, portraits the emotions of men, as told in the archetypal element of Finnish culture: the sauna. I have not seen this movie, because it has so far not yet been released, but even the trailer is compelling by itself.

With the risk of being called pretentious, and certainly not being Finnish, I can somehow relate to the theme of this movie. I am used to going to saunas since my early twenties. Of course the Dutch have no sauna tradition like countries as Finland, Sweden, Russia or Estonia. But the phenomenon spread from northern Europe south to Germany and from there to The Netherlands and other European countries. Dutch and German saunas are now almost all so called luxury wellness centers, spas if you like, compared to the basic saunas you see in the movietrailer at the end of this blog. Sauna is an enjoyable break to sooth the muscles, relax the body and mind and strengthen resistance against the common cold and flu.

Scene from Steam of Life

Eleven years ago however an extra element was added to my sauna routine. I always had a warm relation with my nephew. Actually he is a cousin’s son – but being from the same family clan so to speak, and being in the same age group as his father and uncles, I always called him 'my nephew' and he referred to me as his uncle. Because I had ruptered my achilles tendon a few weeks earlier, and I needed a literally stable person I could hold on to just in case I would fall, I asked my then just 17 year old nephew to join me in the sauna. Being a teen he was obviously reluctant to do so. And it is still a classic story: his Mom told me Wednesday around 6.00PM that my nephew would not be accompanying me. “There is absolutely no way I am going to walk around in my naked butt,” so he said to her. Fair enough, no problem. Just 24 hours later the phone rang and a very casual nephew asked “What time are we leaving actually coming Saturday?”

From this first visit on, my nephew was hooked on the sauna – and after eleven years he still is. On average once a month we make time to go to one of the saunas we have around here. Sometimes we venture further away, as far as Aachen in Germany to visit the beautiful Carolus Thermen there. And there are more on our list. Why do we like it so much? Maybe because you can shut the world out and forget everything when you are inside. No cell phones to bother you, no one looking over your shoulder. A perfect place to sit down and talk and listen to each other. Throughout the years many stories have been told, problems discussed, and confidentialities exchanged. But there is of course also plenty of time for lighthearted subjects, like discussions about cars, gossips and there are many laughs while drinking coffee, a good beer and having lunch. When young, I listened to his stories told from a teenagers perspective, without bothering him too much with my views, shaped by age and experience. I think it is so important that you listen to what a teen has to say. They tell us their lives, and about things that are important or interesting to them and they appreciate it when someone older listens. And the sauna proved just to be the perfect place for that. Literally stripped from all inhibitions, naked, sweating and close to each other – what is there left to be ashamed of?

Obviously, the nature of the conversations changed. Because the boy grew into a man, added 20 kilos to the scales over the years, married, and became a father of a girl and a boy - whos coming arrivals were confined to me before other family members knew about it, while sweating at 90 degrees Celsius. “Martin, Saturday sauna?” was often an indication for an announcement. And me? I just grew older and smiled. But the tradition remains and nobody is going to take that away. I’m still touched when I think back to what my nephew suddenly asked me, out of the blue, a couple of years ago. “We will always be doing this, right?”

Our experiences may not be so deeply emotional that it will bring us to tears, as we see in the Steam of Life trailer, but still this tradition is very special to us. I am not a father, but I say to all fathers with teensons: go to the sauna. Yes, if you are not used to it, it might feel a bit awkward since there is no covering up and both sexes use the sauna at the same time. But believe me, those reservations will be gone after a few minutes. Your reward will be that you will enjoy the best conversations with your son and create a stronger bond. And if a father is too shy to take the initiative, well, maybe be an uncle will do. I know all about that.

Related: Estonian smoke sauna tradition:

Steam of Life