The Dutch are, on statistical average, the tallest people in the world. To anyone with even a passing familiarity with Dutch cuisine, the question is: how is this possible?
I spent a month in Holland on an exchange program, living and eating in Dutch homes around the country. It gave me a pretty good gastronomical snapshot of Dutch culinary habits, and left me with continuing puzzlement as to how the Dutch can grow so tall. Their hospitality was wonderful. Their food was… interesting.
For breakfast, it was plain white bread, buttered — but not toasted — with chocolate sprinkles on top. Where in the United States grocery stores have aisles devoted to breakfast cereal, in the Netherlands they have sections of little boxes with different varieties of sprinkles to shake on top of your white bread and butter in the morning.
For lunch, I had bitterballen, a food eaten only in Holland and its former colonies and nowhere else in the world. Apparently it takes an armed garrison to impose a bitterballen habit. I’ll tell you why: bitterballen is minced crawfish rolled in a ball of congealed goo, formed from gravy mixed with flour, butter and a combustible mix of hot spices, all battered and deep fried. Pass the breath mints.
A classic Dutch dinner is raw herring. That’s right. Read it again. I said “raw herring”. Make your mouth water? Well, try it, and it will make your eyes water. Now, I have to admit that these days raw herring is more a matter of sport-eating – a nostalgic once-a-year remembrance of a bygone maritime and fishing heritage — not a regular staple of work-a-day family meals. But it gives you a historical perspective. Just imagine how bad Dutch cookery must have been back in the day if it was actually preferable to eat the herring raw.
The moral of this story is that if you find yourself ordering food in Holland, you better be careful. Which is hard to do, because the Dutch language is close to incomprehensible. From what I could tell there is no Dutch word spelled with less than 10 letters, and they have a consonant to vowel ratio of about 8 to 1. Which is hard on the eyes when you’re trying to decipher a menu under the gaze of an impatient waiter.
One day I was at the seaside town of Schraevening, staring at a menu, trying to find meaning in enormous strings of letters thrown down on the page in the seemingly random arrangements comprising Dutch words. Amidst the jumble of consonants, my eyes alit on the word “frites”. After three weeks in Holland my command of the Dutch language had progressed impressively to the point where I knew that “frites” meant “fries”. Unfortunately, the word “frites” was preceded by something like “Schlloftenchgosch” and followed by something like “chlthigrthrynch”. I didn’t know what those meant, but what could it matter? I pointed and ordered.
Big mistake. As a lawyer, I should have known better. The words you understand are never the problem, it’s the ones you don’t understand that you have to watch out for.
What they brought me was a big plate of French fries alright — slathered in mayonnaise and peanut sauce. Together. On the same plate. On the same fries. I humbly suggest that mayonnaise never goes with peanut sauce in any application, even as engine lubricant.
The rest of the day was long and hungry. What I would have given for some white bread and butter with chocolate sprinkles on top. But a little hunger in Holland taught me a lesson. In this world, we can’t pass blind and blissful over the gaping pits of our ignorance, we have to shine light in the dark spaces.
That’s especially true with our faith. In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis said:
If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know.
On The Journey Home television program, Scott Hahn and Marcus Grodi were reflecting on their experiences of conversion to Catholicism after years of intense Bible study as protestant ministers:
[Scott Hahn:] . . . I had fun going through the Bible for about three years and looking at what I underlined and then noticing what I had not underlined after fifteen years of bible study and often times it was more significant to notice what I had not underlined, what I had ignored, what I had suppressed, what I was dodging….
[Marcus Grodi:] What’s the underlying reason then that those weren’t underlined?
[Scott Hahn:] Well, I think it’s because we tend to see either what we’ve experienced or we tend to see what we’ve been shown and what we’ve been taught. And so, often, our reading is a kind of re-enforcement of already existing understanding…. And so you go deeper and deeper and what you find is you keep seeing over and over again what you were shown or what you’ve experienced…. And then suddenly a few things happened, a few graces were given, and the scales began to fall off my eyes.
[Marcus Grodi:] The scales are the great example, because we — the idea was that we would go almost like with a clean slate: ‘What is the bible teaching me?’ And in reality we didn’t do that. We went with pre-conceived understandings about certain things and then we would find verses that fit that…. that’s what shapes the glasses, and everything comes from that, and that’s why we would skip and miss verses…. (Editing and punctuation added.)
The human mind has a tendency to seize on what it already knows and recognizes (or at least what it think it knows), and to skip over or ignore what is foreign, what it does not already know or understand. But that doesn’t do us much good. If we pick and choose, approaching God with a selective reading, we aren’t really coming to know God at all. Instead, we’re just projecting our ideas and our images onto God. Scripture warns us to guard against this tendency: “Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Add nothing to His words, lest He reprove you, and you be exposed as a deceiver” ( Prv 30, 5-6). “In your observance of the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.” Deut 4, 2. “I warn everyone who hears the prophetic words in this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words in this prophetic book, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city described in this book” (Rev 22, 18). St. Paul wrote: “As we have said before, and now I say again, if anyone preaches to you a gospel other than the one that you received, let that one be accursed!…I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel preached by me is not of human origin. For I did not receive it from a human being, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ” ( Gal 1, 6-12).
If we take a piecemeal approach to Scripture, or any of the faith passed to us by the Apostles and preserved in the Church, we effectively create the variant gospel that St. Paul warns against. Which is why we have to stop when we come to those parts of Scripture or our faith that don’t seem to jive with us, that we don’t like or understand, and work to know them — not avert our eyes. We need to go deeper into those things which are a mystery to us or that we find difficult to accept. Trying to know truth, trying to know God, is a different exercise from trying to conform God and truth to our pre-conceived notions (or even, sometimes, our desires). The real God may (and probably will) turn out to be different from our thoughts about God – and much greater than our thoughts. So the thing is not to formulate our own version of God, drawn only from our own limited resources, but to step into a larger world and come to know God as He really is.
Besides, we don’t have a choice. Reality is not optional. We can come to know the truth, and therefore be able to make good decisions and live well, or we can order from the menu blind and ignorant. But trying to project our own vision of dietary delight onto reality won’t change a peanut-sauce-and-mayonnaise concoction into ketchup. If we want the filet mignon, we need some understanding. That takes first the willingness to search for reality as it actually exists, to search to know God as He is, rather than how we think we want Him to be or how we think He ought to be. If we can do that, the scales will begin to fall away from our eyes also and we may see things that were always before us, but we never noticed before.