Belgium

Four Days and Four Nights of Dour Festival Cuisine

I called my Belgian friend Arno back in March, when I first arrived in Romania. I had planned little of my seven months in Europe, beyond the first step, and I was looking for advice. Arno had been an exchange student at my tiny Indiana high school, and we had stayed in touch over the years as he moved between America and Europe.

“Come to Belgium in July,” Arno told me. “I want to hear how good or bad your French has gotten. And I want to take you to Dour festival.”

Flash forward five months, and I’m standing in a grocery store in Liège with Arno. We’re staring at our cart, calculating.

“Ok, so that’s enough for the breakfasts… and the sausages and the breads… the noodles for dinner…” Arno is going through some mental checklist, created from years of experience. I, however, am looking around in awe; we’ve come to “the cheapest grocery store in Belgium” to buy in bulk, and I feel like I’m in a dystopian European Costco.

“Alright. The beer, and then we’re good.” We head to the liquor section, and Arno reaches for the Jupiler without hesitation. We are in Belgium, after all, and Jupiler is Belgium’s cheap beer of choice.

In the checkout, the cart is loaded. I stare at its contents in fascination. You could say that this is festival cuisine.

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Dour is an annual alternative music festival that takes place in the fields next to a tiny town near the south Belgian border. The lineup is DJ heavy, with a lot of electro, drum and bass, house, and techno, but there is plenty of metal, hip hop, indie, and reggae as well. The festival, though medium-sized by European standards at 220,000 people, still draws thousands of loyalists every year. Like at most festivals, the entry ticket is exchanged for a fastened bracelet. Those who have been coming to Dour for years proudly flaunt their wristband evidence. There is an air of freedom, and grit, to this weekend.

We spend the days relaxing, talking, and eating at the campsite. I take the opportunity to learn as many French curse words as possible from Arno’s friends, in exchange for teaching English ones. We eat slowly, throughout the afternoon, without hurry to be anywhere at anytime.

The evenings are spent at the music venues, moving from artist to artist in an attempt the create the perfect lineup. Not knowing many of the European artists to begin with, I find a lot of new talent to add to my playlists. A few American artists are there as well, and I’m happy to sing along in English.

The obvious highlight of the festival, for me, was seeing Ms. Lauryn Hill perform. The concert was made all the better by an unlikely meeting with the only other Belgian person Arno and I know from Crown Point High School. Fiona, a former high school exchange student as well, was at the concert too. The three of us never could have imagined, leaving Crown Point, Indiana five years ago, to find ourselves reunited at a Ms. Lauryn Hill concert in Dour, Belgium. The world is a strange place.

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The four days of music and staying out until early morning require fuel. But in a campsite where tents are packed like sardines, there is no electricity, and even getting water requires waiting in line, food options are limited.

I quickly learned that Arno was wise in choosing the food that we brought. After now having the experience of camping at a festival, I can delineate a few simple rules for what I’d like to call “festival cuisine”:

1. Do not bring anything that will suffer in the heat. Forget shade, forget cold spots;  don’t bring anything that can spoil. And after that first afternoon, forget even the possibility of a cold beer.

2. The bare minimal amount of “cooking” possible will be boiling water using a small gas stove. This will enable you to make pasta, instant noodles, and coffee.

3. If it’s processed and comes out of a plastic bag, it will probably taste good after a might of festivities. Give in to it.

4. Though you may try to hold out, eventually, late at night, you will buy a kebab from one of the vendors. Also give in to that.

5. Bring more food than you alone can eat- share with your friends.

A pictorial survey of some ideal festival cuisine:

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At the end of the four days, we emerge from our tent cocoons, pack up, and go home. The ground shows the destructive signs of the festival lifestyle: mud, and garbage. Eating this kind of processed food generates a lot of waste, and here most people leave it on the ground, ready to be picked up by the festival volunteers. I shudder at the mess, realizing the reality of eating festival cuisine. It generates a lot of waste, and judging from the way I feel, it isn’t good for the body.

I’m ready to return to a simpler diet, full of cooked foods and fruits and vegetables. Though I enjoyed the four days and four nights of Dour, I think I need four days of good food and four nights of good sleep to recover.

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Belgian and French Fried

If you’re traveling to Belgium, as an American, you’re bound to offend if you don’t watch yourself: those aren’t French fries. You can call them by their French name (frites) or Dutch (frieten) but in English, they are not French fries. They are Belgian fries.

In Belgium, any grandmother will tell you that the secret to good fries lies in frying them twice. The first time, fried on low heat, the potatoes cook and become fluffy. The second time, on high heat, the outside of the fries becomes crunchy and crisp. If you order your fries at a friterie, they will come in a white cardboard cone, with sauce squirted on top. Most Belgians prefer mayonnaise, and perhaps ketchup.

Belgians supposedly consume more French fries frites than anyone else in the world. As I wander the streets of any city in Belgium, it comes as no surprise. The Belgians celebrate their history by placing a friterie about every block.

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Fries, or chips (for all you Brits), are essentially all a comfort food should be: hot, salty, starchy, and fatty. It is no wonder that there is a hot and salty (and starchy and fatty?) contention over who “invented” them.

A French person will quickly point to a number of anglophone sources, including Thomas Jefferson’s own writing, that refer to fried potatoes “served in the French manner”. “French fries” may indeed come from the old culinary term, “French fried”, which referred to any number of different things that are deep fried.

The Belgians, however, claim that while France, the bigger country, may have popularized fries in the world, it was the Belgians who showed the French how to make the dish in the first place.

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There are an enormous number of origin stories of “French fries”. When the potato was introduced to Europe from South America around 1600, most people thought it was toxic. It wasn’t until the late 1700s that the potato became popular in western Europe.

One origin story claims that when Belgian peasants ran out of fish to fry during some particularly tough seasons, they cut up potatoes in thin strips and fried them to mimic the way they normally prepared fish. This dish eventually spread to France, where it was then exported to the world under the French name.

Another popular Belgian story comes from WWI, when the many American troops stationed in Belgium tried the local cuisine, which included fries. The mobile troops, not really knowing European geography and hearing the locals speak French, assumed they were in France. When they returned to the US, they called the dish “French fries”.

No one knows who “invented” fries. It’s possible that the Belgians invented the fries and introduced them to the French; the reverse is also conceivable. Or, the dishes evolved concurrently in different places that already had similar climates and cuisines. What is most likely is that we’ll never have a definitive answer in this debate.

And yet the lively debate continues, over cones of fries in Belgium and France. This is what is most interesting of all: how cuisine becomes tied to identity. The ownership of fries is not a major dispute. But to those involved, it is a debate of both gastronomical legacy and of cultural influence. People want to claim ownership over what they see as their contribution to the culinary world, because food is tied to cultural identity.

This is why, in every debate that I witness, I try to set everyone off balance. “Wait…” I ask, acting confused, “didn’t McDonald’s invent the fries in like the 60s?”

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To Each, His or Her Own Glass

On my arrival in Flanders, I was welcomed with great hospitality and beer. I don’t know which was better.

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Flanders is the Dutch speaking northern part of Belgium, a tiny region filled with loads of history and kind people. I was lucky to be hosted near Gent by the aunt and uncle of a good friend. Peter and Ann showed me more kind hospitality than I knew what to do with, helping me explore the region on bike and by train, and feeding me well.

Peter and Ann live in the Flemish countryside, where the flowing fields of corn and wheat quietly remind me of my home in Indiana. The land here, however, doesn’t bear the same signs of big agriculture that I see back home. Farms, even when big, are split up into smaller plots, with farmers owning many parcels in different locations. Homes that have been around for generations rest on their land, making it difficult to consolidate. Small walking paths that crisscross the fields provide arteries of public access through the farmland.

I take a few long bike rides through the countryside, using the region’s brilliantly laid out biking map. I follow back country roads, avoiding the big highways. On these little roads I can pass an entire afternoon without seeing anyone but the occasional tractor and other cyclists. I pass tree nurseries, full of young lindens and ash and maples, destined for cities all over Europe. Some of these trees stay in the region too, relining the country roads that were a long time ago made bare. The countryside, here in Flanders, is tranquil.

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In the evening, to my great joy, Peter and Ann would usually crack open a beer. I couldn’t have been more content; I think Belgium makes some of the best beers in the world. And I was eager to drink these beers in the proper way, Belgian style.

Belgian beer afficiandos need to have a lot of space for glassware, because each beer has its own glass. Chimay, Duvel, and Westmalle all have differently shaped, branded glasses, and a Belgian beer drunk in the wrong glass would be an embarrassment. It is said that the shape of the glass allows the beer to breathe optimally, but I like to say that the name in the glass helps you remember what you’re drinking as the night goes on.

True to form, Ann and Peter had all the proper glasses, and we drank each beer in its own. I’m no expert on Belgian beers, but I think I have been converted. A special glass makes a special occasion out of each beer.

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The last night I am with Ann and Peter, we celebrate the summer arrival of fresh mussels, from the northern coast. We cook the mussels with onion, a few spices, and, of course, beer. With a side of Belgian fries and mayonnaise (see the following blog post), the meal is perfect. We spend the night around the table, eating, drinking, and talking.

I could not be more grateful, to be welcomed and sent off in the same way: with great hospitality and great beer.

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