Long live snack culture!

Pizza, pancakes and chips. Dutch snackbar culture is still hugely popular, despite the rise of superfoods, vegetable gurus and healthy snack alternatives. ‘Unhealthy eating is an inseparable element of Dutch food culture’, says anthropologist Irene Stengs.

02/10/2020 | 1:10 PM

Stengs is interested in the popularity of unhealthy food in the Netherlands. "It’s actually an offshoot of a research project into another typical and seldom-researched Dutch phenomenon: the braderie or street fair. During my research I noticed that when I wanted to each something at a street fair, the only options on offer was deep-fried foods. This is very different to annual fairs in the United Kingdom or France, which by contrast are opportunities to present all kinds of local specialities."

According to the anthropologist, eating at snackbars is an established or indeed natural part of Dutch food culture. "I regard it as an ‘institution’. Everyone grows up with it. Every village has a snackbar. But there’s a paradoxical aspect to this food culture: on the one hand it’s very everyday food, but at the same time it’s also the food served at children’s parties, on Sundays and at festivals, at fun fairs and amusement parks. I call it the festive commonplace of Dutch fast food culture."

A standard look at popular cuisine culture won’t highlight the popularity of the 'kapsalon' (French fries, shawarma meat and melted Gouda cheese, topped by lettuce, garlic sauce and hot sambal sauce), the 'frikandel speciaal' (minced-meat sausage with chopped onion and sauces) or the 'frietje oorlog' (French fries with peanut sauce, mayonnaise and chopped onions). Unhealthy food is obviously tasty food. Starred chefs who make it into the Dutch celebrity league, TV cooking shows with culinary highlights and smart cookbooks with healthy masterpieces – none of them discourage the Dutch from visiting the snackbar. "What’s interesting is that Dutch fast food culture does actually evolve along with all kinds of other developments in society, as we see from the rise of the kebab sandwich, the 'kapsalon', the croquette made of Black Angus ragout, the vegan snackbar or the more chic Fritique", says Stengs.

If you want to see just how much part of daily life Dutch fast food is, then take a look in your local Dutch supermarket. When visiting the supermarket around the corner from her own home, Stengs counted sixty pizza variants, with not only Italian ones but also Turkish pizzas (lahmacun), American pizzas and mini-pizzas. "The freezer cabinet has twenty kinds of fries, there’s a cabinet wall with 21 metres of ice-cream, fourteen metres of Mora products (a supplier of deep-frozen fast food snacks) and just seven metres of deep-frozen vegetables. This shows that despite the growing awareness of the dangers of obesity and fatty foods, or of the importance of healthy eating, rational thinking plays little role in the whole affair. It’s above all memories and emotions that affect what people do and what they enjoy eating. There are already people who regard the deep-fry stand or the snackbar, with all their characteristic deep-fried snacks, as part of Dutch cultural heritage."

Irene Stengs is Professor of Anthropology of Ritual and Popular Culture at VU University Amsterdam and a researcher at the Meertens Institute.