National Culinary Self-hatred as a Social Strategy

The Myth of Dutch Tastlessness

Saar Niermeijer and Gaston Franssen


What has culinary taste to do with the construction of social classes and national identities? Our main point of departure will be that taste expressions are in fact vehicles for two simultaneously operating, but conflicting processes that are essential for the understanding of cultural modernity: national unification and social distinction. On the one hand a ‘national taste’ can be a powerful tool in the creation of national belonging. It circulates and naturalizes a national image through the construction of a distinct culinary tradition, by presenting images of ideal national family practices and by placing other national cuisines within specific value regimes (the ‘refined’ French cuisine, the ‘healthy and simple’ Italian dishes, the ‘coarse’ English breakfast, …). Yet on the other hand, taste operates as an instrument for social distinction, creating class differences within the ‘unity’ of the nation. Building on the cultural sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, we demonstrate that expressing one’s taste is usually a matter of making an opposition between what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ taste is, and thereby it produces and reinforces class differences within a nation.
The proposed paper derives from a PhD project that sets out to investigate these two conflicting processes for Dutch culinary culture throughout modernity. As literary scholars we regard taste as a textual and social construction, which can be traced through a literary analysis of ‘culinary writing’—e.g. cookery books, etiquette guides, literary representations of food and cooking. The paper will focus on the contemporary myth of Dutch tastelessness: A negative national self-image that portrays the Netherlands as a nation that has no gastronomic tradition and whose citizens, due to their frugality, lack a refined taste. By analyzing various contemporary texts on Dutch culinary culture across genres – exemplary case studies will include the novel Het Diner of Herman Koch (2009), the cookery book Het Rijksmuseum Kookboek by Bert Natter (2004) and the memoirs of Wina Born, Culinaire herinneringen (1999) – we will reconstruct the roots of this negative national self-image and explain its social function. Within these culinary contexts, the denial of a Dutch gastronomic tradition (‘the Dutch never had good taste’), is often a way to express one’s own good taste. Dismissing the Dutch way of cooking for its apparent course simplicity can be interpreted as a distinctive act; the writers show that they, as opposed to common Dutch people, are able to discern what refined, ‘good’ culinary taste is. The paper will reflect on how this social strategy subverts the contemporary project of national unification; as culinary writing makes these distinctive positions available to it readers it co-creates and enhances the present differences between social classes in the Netherlands.