Beer for Breakfast
The New Netherland colonists ate a hearty diet of calorie-laden dishes — many of which we still enjoy today
Brew for babies? Safer than water, beer was the drink of choice in the colonies for residents of all ages
Photograph by Denis Vrublevski/Shutterstock
Pancakes, cookies, coleslaw, donuts, waffles, pretzels. We think of these as classic American foods, but the Dutch can take credit for introducing them here when they established New Netherland in the early 17th century. Those colonists didn’t know it, but they were influencing the course of the American diet for centuries.
Still, if a newly transplanted Dutchman from that era were to time-travel to a contemporary diner, he’d likely be confused. Pancakes on the breakfast menu, fluffy and piled high with a side of syrup? Not so in his day, when they were flat, sturdy, cookie-like cakes you’d hold in your hand and never have for breakfast — and certainly not with syrup. You call that koolsla (cole slaw)? The kind his wife served was very finely sliced cabbage, with melted butter and vinegar poured over the ’slaw — not the sweet style you mostly see today. And why isn’t everyone (and that means everyone, even the kids) drinking beer at every meal, including breakfast?
Dutch colonists brought over fruit trees, seeds, and cattle — anything that would enable them to recreate life at home. “The whole idea was that New Netherland would be self-sufficient, but also be able to supply the ships that left from here to trade in the Caribbean,” says local food scholar Peter Rose, author of Food, Drink and Celebrations of the Hudson Valley Dutch (The History Press).
Wheat and rye were important crops — essential for making bread, which was a mainstay of the Dutch diet. Orphanage menus, collected from 1647 in Amsterdam and described in detail in Rose’s book, provide an accurate window into the working-person’s diet in the New World and the importance of bread in that diet. There was bread and butter for breakfast and perhaps a sop, or mush of vegetables. The main afternoon meal could be salted or smoked meats with a piece of bread. The evening repast might be a porridge of buttermilk with bread crumbled in it. All meals were washed down with beer. The Dutch food saying “Everywhere bread is baked” (the English-language equivalent of “When one door shuts, another opens”) pretty much sums it up. And while it may sound rather bland to us, “a nutritionist at Cornell analyzed the diet and found it to be sound in every way except for lacking in vitamin C,” says Rose.
One thing the Dutch can’t take credit for is the American obsession with dieting. “We think in terms of restricting calories, but in those days, people worked with their hands and their bodies, and they needed every calorie they could get,” says Rose.
The colonists actively sought foods that would sustain them for long periods of time. “Wheat bread is lighter to digest than rye, but those who are very hungry or constantly hungry are better off eating rye bread than wheat bread,” counseled Dutch physician Stefanus Blankaart in his 1683 page-turner De Borgerlijke Tafel (The Bourgeois Table). White bread was more commonly eaten by the well-to-do and was viewed as a sign of affluence.
In search of calories, the Dutch dunked their bread in fat and added it to stews with gusto. They fattened their hogs on the ample supply of acorns in New Netherland until they were a hand’s width wider than those back home.
Drinking beer was another way of pumping up the calorie count, as was the custom throughout northern Europe, including England. “It was a sensible thing to drink beer because in beer making you’d use boiled water,” says Rose. “Beer was safer. They might not have known why, but they knew it was. In terms of nutrition, it was like drinking a slice of bread.” Even when coffee, tea, and hot chocolate came into fashion at the end of the 17th century (particularly among the middle and upper classes), beer retained its importance. It also became popular with the natives: A 1696 bill of sale for Hyde Park land by American Indian chiefs to a private landowner listed a half-barrel of “good beer” among items used to purchase the acreage.
Barley, wheat, and hops were the principal ingredients of those early beers, but the brews were also flavored with various mixtures of cherries, raspberries, currants, herbs, and spices. Belgian fruit beers give an approximation of what those early Dutch beers tasted like. The poor and children drank a weak beer with about .5 to 1.5 percent alcohol content. Those who were wealthier had more flavorful — and alcoholic — Pilsner-style beers.
Perhaps not too surprisingly, the Dutch also had a fondness for honey- and sugar-laden sweets like koeckjes (cookies) — and didn’t stress over what they’d do to their hips, not to mention their teeth. They baked butter cookies, caraway cookies, and currant cookies — and they invented the forerunner of the donut. Called olie-koecken, or oil cakes, these deep-fried fritters were flavored with cinnamon, ginger, cloves, raisins, almonds, and apples. When hard-to-find ingredients like almonds and raisins were scarce, they simply made the dough richer with more eggs and butter — the so-called “Albany method.” By the early 19th century, these treats were well established in America.
As Washington Irving describes in 1809, Dutch tea tables always offered “an enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat and called dough nuts.”
Sweet treat: Along with cookies and donuts, quince squares were a popular snack among the Dutch middle class
Photograph courtesy of Linda Kovacevic
Quince squares were another favorite, and come fall, Rose usually has a tray of them waiting for guests at her Westchester home. “This is the real McCoy,” she says. Reminiscent of Chuckles candy in looks and texture but actually made of — and colored with — real fruit, these jewel-toned treats, glistening with sugar, are from a recipe in De Verstandige Kock (The Sensible Cook), a 17th-century cookbook. The tome reflected the diet of the well-to-do household and appealed to the growing ranks of the Dutch middle class. The Joy of Cooking of its day, it was a standard in the New World kitchen.
The Dutch also imported the legend of St. Nicholas from their homeland, and it was here that he eventually morphed into our American Santa. They observed the St. Nicholas celebration with special treats. Throughout December and early January, bakers would churn out duivekater, a buttery lemon-flavored white bread that was a break from the usual rye/wheat variety. They also baked speculaas, a hard gingerbread, in wooden molds or cake boards (windmill cookies are the closest approximation today). Vendors sold apples, pears, and oranges at St. Nicholas markets, along with gifts for children to receive in their shoes and stockings on St. Nicholas Day (December 6): perhaps a doll, toy windmill, or kolf stick (used for a game played on land and ice that was the forerunner of ice hockey). “What surprises people is that there were no holiday decorations,” says Rose. “That doesn’t come until the beginning of the Victorian era.”
For the New Year’s celebration, a phenomenon of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Dutch visited friends and relatives in earnest, receiving wafers imprinted with religious or nature images along the way. Even the postman got some when he rang the bell. These New Year’s cakes continued to be made by an Albany baker into the mid-20th century, says Rose. If you missed them, try the recipe in her book to ring out the Quadricentennial.