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.


  1. I'm a crab lover myself. Years ago when we lived near the Chesapeake Bay, a Saturday evening was at home with a large pot full of crabs and hours spent socially at the table.

    Our time in the Pacific Northwest is coming to a close and the big Dungeness crabs are a staple here. Returning to the Mid-Atlantic within weeks and back to their cuisine. Yum!


  2. Ah, the Maryland crab house-it is very American, as is the New England drive-in clam shack.

    Contact me next trip-we can sample a few favorites.


  3. I try to not to go to Old Country Buffet, or any "all you can eat" joint because the scenery depresses me. The general demographics of a typical Old Country Buffet are as follows:

    50% - Terrifyingly obese people

    50% - Octogenarians with oxygen tanks in tow

    For the record, Americans generally don't consider Olive Garden to be an Italian Restaurant. In fact, it is often the butt of many jokes in the same way Taco Bell is in regards to being "Mexican". Both are diluted to Americans' (bland) tastes and processed to the point where they don't even approach authentic. Having said that, that doesn't mean I don't still like eating at both places.

    As long as it's not too busy (and thus the restaurant staff does not have the need to clear your table for a new customer) you can always just say "come back later" if they try to offer desert too soon at any restaurant. You are right though - Americans generally rush through their meals and consider it more of a task that needs completing rather than a social event. If you do want to stay and sip coffee all night that is almost always acceptable - I have certainly done so before - just say so to the waiter/waitress and he/she should not bother you any longer. The only time this will be a problem is, as said above, if it is a busy night.

  4. Why is there so much concern over eating food prepared outside of the Netherlands? Is a potential illness the reason? I have only been sick from food three times in my life, always due to food not being kept at the right temperature. I personally avoid eating at McDonald’s or Pizza Hut. If you want good fast food in the USA, try Wendy’s Hamburgers or Burger King. I know this is odd to many outside of North America, but tips are typically expected to be 15-20% of the total bill. Your food service staff there may get paid an hourly rate like cooks and dishwashers at restaurants, but not in the States. When I was working at TGI Fridays, an American bistro, I was getting paid $2.13 per hour (as waiter or bartender). That was enough to pay for my health insurance (which is not provided by the government in the USA) and income taxes, and that was it. My bi-weekly paystub showed $0.00 every time. So, if I did not make tips, I could not pay my rent, car payment, or utility bills. Regarding feeling rushed, please keep in mind that most Americans have more than one event planned for the evening, such as going to see a movie after having a meal, so being in and out in less than an hour is expected. This is especially true for lunch patrons who only have 45 minutes for lunch. Now, let’s get back to tips. For a server to make money, they must make tips. During a 2-3 hour lunch rush, they want to turn that table as often as possible, because once the rush is done, they are sent home. Would you rather have $10 from that table in a 3 hour time span, or $30? Keep in mind that as a server, you have to pay tips out to a food runner, if there is one, who delivers your food while it is hot. Your server also has to tip the bartender, if there is a bar (even if no alcoholic drinks were served). If there is a busboy clearing and resetting the table for the next customer, he must be tipped by your server as well. So, up to 30% of all tips received may go to another person when you tip your server. Please do not think your server is robbing you of your vacation money. It truly is what I say here. One last thing, the rule of how much to tip is not fixed. TIPS = To Insure Prompt Service is a common rule. Your coffee or Coke should be refilled as it is emptied (if refills are included), your dishes should be cleared when finished, and you should not have to wait for the bill. If your service was absolutely awful, leave a penny or other small coin, showing you were not ignorant enough to not know you were supposed to tip, but that the server gave awful service, and that is all they were worth. Otherwise, please tip a minimum of 15-20%. Some people tip as much as 30-35% for exceptional service, but it should be earned! Regarding getting ill, one time I had a burger that was not kept hot enough or the condiments were not kept cold enough…either way, I got sick. Another time was when I had a reservation at a famous restaurant in Chicago, but we were still waiting on our table, perhaps due to some Europeans having a lengthy night out (;-P), and we were having drinks at the bar. They had free appetizers available to bar patrons, including a salmon pâté. The appetizers had been stocked earlier before the heavy dinner rush, and the bowl of pâté was set upon ice that was mostly melted. I loved it! It was very tasty! I know that it was the pâté due to the fact that everything else that I ate was also eaten by my fiancée, including the main entrée, and she was fine. I was miserable for nearly 24 hours. A seafood taco that I had in Mexico was the only other food item that I recall my body not digesting well…at all. What I learned is that you should not eat foods that have been kept at improper temperatures, and this goes for foods eaten anywhere on the globe. The burger I could not have known about, but if I had been thinking, I should have been more cautious about the taco and pâté. My suggestions for European and North American eating:

  5. I love having those little moments with complete strangers. You know that no further contact will ensue, but yet you form an instant bond that you just can't shake from your head. It's really quite a special thing!

    I don't pretend that Olive Garden serves true Italian food - "Italian inspired" I guess - but it is most certainly my favorite chain of restaurant. Those bread sticks.....unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I have to drive 3 hours one way to get to my nearest Olive Garden, so it's always a treat for me.

    I do not like the whole concept of the tip (I prefer the European/Australian/etc. method, of companies actually properly paying their employees), but I do leave one, usually around 17%, because of those poor wages. However, that is always something that should be at my discretion. If I had been handed that card saying my tip was not suitable, I would have walked out without tipping at all. "Sorry to have imposed with my kindness."

    One of my best friends is of Dutch descent (all grandparents raised there), and I've never seen a less picky eater! He'll pop anything into his mouth! :-D


  6. Hahaha! I love it! "Never met a less picky eater...he will pop anything into his mouth!" That is hilarious! And it is the exact opposite of what Martin has experienced per his blog!

  7. Obviously, the way I picture the Dutch here is a bit overdoing it. But it is a fact that many Dutch bring as much groceries as possible with them in their RV trailers, so that they can cook as if at home. “The farmer won’t eat what he doesn’t know” is a well known Dutch proverb. It is not that the Dutch do not trust the quality of foreign food, it is just that they are reluctant to try something new, they do not know what they will get and are afraid they won’t like it. To give an example: cream, as on pies, in Germany is prepared without sugar. Dutch love loads of sugar in it. I can not count the times I’ve heard that “it does not taste as at home”. No, of course not, because you are not at home.
    On the subject that the Italian food that is served at The Olive Garden is adapted to American taste, I think this is something that you will see in many countries. A comedian once joked about a Dutchman opening a genuine Dutch Italian restaurant at the Garda Lake in Italy, where many of my fellow countrymen spend their vacation... And Chinese restaurants you’ll visit in Holland will have a different menu as when you visit one in the USA. Dutch Chinese restaurants have a lot of Indonesian influences, because of the Dutch colonial heritage.
    And Max, yes, I noticed the number of obese persons in the Old Country Buffet too. And it certainly is not a restaurant you will visit because of the nice mood it has. But you can’t beat the value.

  8. I would have to agree that local food establishments vary in their preparation of what is considered a global Chinese, as mentioned. When a UK friend mentions what is on his local Chinese menu I get blown away...because in the States curries are very few and far between, and it seems like his entire menu is nearly all curries. This makes sense due to the Indian influence on the UK, but to an American palate, curry is all but non-existent. We do not even have curry spice in our collection of spices here in the house.
    Of the all-you-can-eat places here, many are Chinese Buffets...which often are very tasty, with won ton, egg drop, and hot and sour soups, sushi, many prepared meat and veggie dishes, fresh fruit, beverages, deserts including soft-serve ice cream, and of course, a fortune cookie! This is a place where you can try something that you are not sure of, and if you like it, get more, if not, try something else. I eat at these buffets much more often than the American-style buffets with massive obesity and oxygen tanks. Oh, and also be looking for KFC buffets. I never eat a two piece meal, for instance, if I can drive two miles to a KFC buffet where I can get the dark or light meat chicken and as many veggies, soups, or whatever as I choose.