I went to Belgium several times in the 90’s, which makes this week’s Global Table both fun and nostalgic for me.
In my experience, the jokes about Belgians loving fries (with mayonnaise), waffles (with fruit and/or ice cream), and chocolate (of the highest quality) are true. They’ve got the right idea, don’t you think?
The unfortunate part of their diet is the mayonnaise.
My longest trip to Belgium lasted 3 weeks. That heartbreaking summer I volunteered at Kinderland, an emergency shelter for abandoned children. There is no greater wrong than the wrong done to the innocent. Depressed by the hopelessness (which the small children were thankfully and blissfully unaware of), I found comfort in the local food. My pants got a little (ok, a lot) tight during my stint there as a volunteer, despite the fact that I rode a bicycle everywhere and played with the children all day. This was thanks, in large part, to mayonnaise. All my meals were taken at the shelter; and (due to financial restrictions, I’m sure) much of the food was carb-loaded. Think bread, French fries, and mashed potatoes. When my meal wasn’t slathered in mayonnaise, it was covered in cheese. I was begging for vegetables by the time the trip ended.
Not all Belgian food is so heavy, however. In high school I overcame my awkward middle school years to become captain of the JV basketball team and primary pitcher for our high school’s coed softball team. Our games took us to Belgium several times a year for short weekends, where we were fortunate enough to stay with host families. In most homes, the food included lovely fresh vegetables, such as endive, leek, and asparagus. One particularly generous family sent me home with a box of Belgian chocolates, known to be “the national pride of Belgium.” (Belgium, Enchantment of the World by Michael Burgan). The decadent souvenir never survived the long bus ride back to my home, in Luxembourg.
In general, Belgian food is a balancing act between the rustic and the exotic. Belgians love most any kind of meat, not limited to chicken, beef, ham, and veal, but including specialties like pate, goose, duck, boar, partridge, and any kind of sausage. Escargots, or snails are also popular, as are mussels, trout, perch, turbot, shrimp, and eel. Even with such an extensive list, many Belgians claim steak and French Fries their most beloved dish. Still others enjoy Stoofvlees (meat stew) with the French fries, or Waterzooi, a soup made with fish or chicken and vegetables
Anyone in a noshing mood during happy hour will be happy to learn that Belgians are known for making hundreds of cheeses and beers. I wish I had the time to try them all. Oh, to dream. My stomach just smiled.