This post is one for my International friends. My favourite holiday is probably New Year. Does that even count as a holiday? Otherwise Sinterklaas is a close second. There are people who do not care whether it is 11:59 or 00:01, and there are people who ignore the moment altogether. But I really enjoy counting down to midnight. Suddenly, a magical newness washes over the world. Not to mention, everything that comes before that moment. In my family’s case, much, much (much) food.
We have a generation`s old tradition to make IJzerkoeken on ‘old year`s day’. I am not sure how to explain, except that they are a crispy-thin kind of waffle. These come with two stories. There is ours, and there is the rest of the country`s. In my family, I really do not know who started making them, and why we started doing it on that day. But my grandmother made them, her sister made them; they taught my cousins how to make them, my mum how to make them. Mum does not even like cooking, and she does not especially love baking. She is usually too busy doing a million other things, and when she is not doing those things, she would much prefer so sit down with a large glass of wine. Yet, without really thinking about it, we get out the waffle gear each year. The trick is, that you have to take the waffle off the iron without flopping it around too much, and then roll it up really quickly while it is still hot. Burnt fingers are not optional. My aunt also says that in the Old Year you roll them up, but in the New Year you leave them open. And cream is not allowed.
Now to more public history. I do not like to go all the way back in this case, because then we will have to discuss when bread became waffles, when people began to bake bread, the discovery of fire, and when we evolved into complex society. Since we call them ‘iron waffles’ it is safe to say that this is an essential material for the baking of IJzerkoeken. There are some really beautiful irons which survive from the 16th century. Apparently it was originally an Easter tradition – because of… calendars, and Christianity, and New Year being on a different day. But lets’ now turn to the story of December 22, 1770. A riot took place in the North-Eastern city of Coevorden. People would usually go out in the streets for New Year and sing, dance, and hand out IJzerkoeken, among other joyous activities. In particular, this was a time of sharing food (and drink) with the less fortunate. The local Church was not enthusiastic about it (because of the drinking), and decided to forbid it. This decision was met with great unrest. An angry mob stormed the seat of the local government, lead by the IJzerkoeken bakers. The city council gave in. No one has tried to stop anyone in Coevorden from handing out IJzerkoeken ever since.
Another thing that will turn up in virtually every Dutch home, not just in the North-East, is Oliebollen (oil balls? literal translations are not always meant to be…). I will compare them to doughnuts. Ohhhh, I went out in the morning, and I could smell them everywhere in the streets. You scoop a little ball of dough into a deep fryer, and then cover it with powdered sugar. Some people like to add sultanas as well; I do not. As before, lets’ not discuss transformation from bread to doughnut. In fact, not many people know that the tradition of making, eating and sharing oliebollen for New Year is closely linked to IJzerkoeken. Because it had become the custom to share baked goods (preferably sugary and fatty) with people (and particularly, poor people) the Oliebol was a natural upgrade. When you are cold and hungry, it is kind of a fantastic thing to have.
Do not fear, these are usually available in Holland throughout the year (although more so in winter). Often you will find them at Fairs or… just in Amsterdam. Keep an eye out if you would like to try one.
There are several other things I want to write about, but perhaps I will save them for next year. There is just one non-food-related event I really need to share. I used to think this was an insane thing Dutch people do, but since moving abroad I have learned many other countries have a similar tradition. Albeit on different days. And minus silly hats. I am talking about the Nieuwjaarsduik (new year`s dive; polar bear plunge). Originally, people gathered at the beach of Scheveningen, but nowadays at many beaches across Holland. On the morning of the new year, in their swimsuits, and they all dive into the North Sea. Also if it is snowing. Or in this case, it being the warmest December in recorded history, definitely not snowing.
For the first time ever, I had the idea to ask granddad… why people wear these hats. In Holland, everyone who runs into the sea turns up with a little orange Unox hat. Unox being a brand known for selling soup and sausages. (?!) Granddad bestowed upon me the knowledge that people also used to wear these hats when ice-skating the Elfstedentocht (eleven cities tour). So wait, this is a historic, nation-wide thing? I asked Google about it. It turns out that because it has not been possible to organise an Elfstedentocht in so long Unox started sponsoring the Nieuwsjaarduik instead. However, I have one problem with Google. Granddad claims he was given three of those hats, during his times skating the Elfstedentocht. That would be impossible, because the internet says Unox did not start giving them out until 1997. I know, easy to blame old age etc., but that is a really strange thing to make up. To be continued!