The Smells and Tastes of Being Dutch Reformed
What shapes an identity? What makes a community?
I grew up in Dutch Reformed immigrant communities in towns and rural areas in Ontario, Canada, in the 1970s and early 1980s. My father was the “dominee” in a series of congregations from the Ottawa region to the Niagara Peninsula. When I describe to my students how religious and ethnic communities like these work, what should I tell them?
I have a memory from my teenage years of an adult saying, “She married a Canadian boy.” In other words, not one of us. “We” were Dutch Reformed. “They” were Canadians. Sometimes, of course, were we Canadians. During the Olympics, for example. “We” were Canadian. “They” were Americans or Soviets. But mostly “we” were Dutch Reformed. (During World Cup soccer, we were Dutch.)
What made us “Dutch Reformed”? When did we know we were home, where we belonged?
The carefully schooled Reformed boy in me thinks about doctrine, worship, and Sunday school. Heidelberg Catechism classes. Profession of faith. The texts of scripture. The content of what we believed. The liturgies of Sunday services—two of them, morning and afternoon.
The cultural historian in me and my own memories point me beyond formal liturgy, hymns, and doctrines. In the church of my teen years the afternoon church service was at 2:30, for the convenience of dairy farmers who had late afternoon milking to do.
I have in mind something like what anthropologists call “thick description.” I hesitate to imply that the Heidelberg Catechism and Reformed doctrine are “thin.” They’re anything but thin, intellectually. But when I look back, the memories that are most powerful about what it was like to grow up Dutch Reformed are not what we believed. They are about smells, sounds, tastes, and other physical sensations of the life that were integrated with faith. And they are about tight networks of people and a variety of kinds of institutions.
In this blog post, I’m going to focus on the stuff involving the senses. In a subsequent post, I’ll focus on networks of people and institutions. (Dutch delis were important!)
To understand my community’s experience, you need to imagine the sound of peppermints being passed around when the sermon started during church services. Whispers. Paper being torn. And then the taste. Faam or King peppermints. Lifesavers in a few families. For a long sermon, maybe you’d get a second or even a third piece. Strong doctrine required a strong peppermint. Orthodoxy and King peppermints! Sometimes you still had a bit of peppermint in your mouth when the hymn began after the sermon.
Faith had a Dutch brogue. I can still hear the accents of scripture being read, hymns sung, prayers prayed, and sermons preached. I remember the sense older folk had that the shift from Dutch services to English was a sign of spiritual decline. If Dutch (or Frisian) was good enough for the Almighty, surely it ought to be good enough for us.
If a person’s first language is the language of faith, the one that shapes her or his ear early in life, then mine was perhaps neither Dutch nor English. It was English with a Dutch accent.
We had communion—The Lord’s Supper—four times a year when I was a kid and later once a month. The taste and smell of the other form of weekly “communion” was coffee after church, with many of the men and some of the women stopping for a cigarette first. I can still see the church caretaker, looking on, waiting to sweep up the cigarette butts.
Authority smelled like old cigars. Smoke clung to the walls, chairs, and table in the “consistory” (church council) room. Smoke breathed in and out over decades of conversations about theology, unorthodox ideas, fund raising, Christian school politics, and wayward sinners, hopefully on their way back to the fold.
Soup and buns for lunch on Sunday, so mom did not have to cook anything new on the sabbath. Soup and buns, often, at funerals. And a lot of raucous talking.
Stamppot. Dutch peasant food made from a combination of potatoes, kale (boerenkool, in Dutch), and sausage. I don’t think I ever had stamppot at a church event. And yet it was a mark of the community of the faithful as I knew it.
I could go on for a long time about food. Food at home, eaten between prayers before the meal and Bible passages or short devotions and another prayer after the meal. Food from the local Dutch deli. Smoked horse meat. Dried sausages. Gouda cheese. Komijnekaas (Leyden cheese with cumin or caraway seeds in it). Salted herring. Smoked eels. Food eaten at Christian school and church bazaars.
Oliebollen—little homemade deep-fried Dutch donuts, with raisins or currents, or apples, made around New Years Day, eaten with icing sugar. My cousins and I called them “cholesterol balls.” We ate them at home on New Year’s Day morning, then went to church. Then we ate more for lunch at home.
We believed in election, of course, as good Reformed folk. God had chosen us, given us faith and inclined us to follow him. How did we know we were part of the faithful? Max Weber got it wrong, or at best half right, when he pointed to worldly success as a sign of God’s favor. I knew who the faithful were by the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the faithful.
I write all of this with my tongue in cheek. But only just a bit. We made ourselves a people not just with the things we “confessed,” but with the unthought habits and sensations of ordinary life. The tastes, smells, sounds, and sights I’ve described sanctified life in their own ways.
The Heidelberg Catechism asks in question 1 what is your only comfort? The answer is that your only comfort in life and in death is your faithful savior Jesus Christ. I remember memorizing this Q&A in catechism classes in my teens. I remember affirming the Q&A to the church council in my late teens, professing my faith and becoming a full member of the church. I signed on to the Heidelberg Confession and the other Reformed doctrinal standards as an elder in First Christian Reformed Church in Kingston, Ontario, in my late 20s.
But I also know about comfort food. And I know about how powerfully the experience of faith and religious life involves all the senses and the “thick experiences” that make ethnic culture, religious tradition, and ordinary life impossible to fully disentangle.
William Katerberg is professor of history and interim curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University.
The cover for this post is two advertisements from December 1983 in Calvinist Contact, the newspaper of the Dutch Reformed community in Canada during the my youth. Today, reflecting Canadianization, the paper is called Christian Courier. It still has a Dutch Reformed flavor, but it now speaks to Christian audiences and public life beyond its Dutch and Reformed roots. There’s still a Dutch stories in both Burlington and Hamilton.