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Food by VICE

This Dutch Christmas Tradition Was Designed to Boost the Meat Industry

In the 70s, the Netherlands consumed more cheese than meat. That's why the Dutch Meat Office looked to two culinary trendsetters to revolutionize the meat industry with a cooking device that serves up gnome-sized dinner portions you'll find at every...

by Felicia Alberding
Dec 25 2014, 4:00pm

You're clothes will smell horrible afterwards, like you've been working in a fried chicken restaurant kitchen all night long. People who consider themselves "gourmands" find it a reprehensible thing for lazy cooks. Yet somehow, ever year, millions of people in the Netherlands gather around their individual gourmet grilling devices known as Gourmetten on Christmas.

Similar to Korean BBQ or a Vietnamese hot pot (because you can cook everything at your dining room table), the Gourmetten is slightly different. Picture tiny little pans and spatulas for each diner to help you prepare your own miniature steaks, slavink (ground meat), schnitzels, and tiny hamburgers on a searing hot griddle. You'll also find garlic sauce, whiskey sauce, garlic butter, and—if you're lucky—pancake batter, resting in the wings on the table, along with some chopped peppers, onions, and a bowl of eggs.

Regardless of what haters of gourmetten think, it's one of the most popular ways to spend Christmas dinner: about 30 percent of Dutch families practices it. Gourmetten is all about convenience—the kids won't get bored with all those teensy pans and miniature foods, and the host can sit back and relax at the table. Every person must cook their own meal.

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Above, Huub Oudshoorn and and Ton Boer

But most Dutch are unaware of the two guys to whom we owe this greasy holiday tradition: Huub Oudshoorn and Ton Boer. Beginning in the late 70s, the duo toured around the Netherlands for over 20 years to proselytize to Dutch housewives and locals schools about this fast and easy cooking method. The impetus behind the tour was that they had been hired as representatives of a butcher's interest group and were also commissioned by the Dutch meat industry.

I recently called up Ton Boer and Huub Oudshoorn to discuss their thoughts on revolutionizing the Dutch dinner table with this movement, even though they did not invent the phenomenon. Gourmetten originally hailed from Switzerland, but how it landed in the Netherlands is still a mystery to even the two gourmetten pioneers.

Rewind to 1977, and the Dutch Meat Office sees an increase in the popularity of cheese fondue. The Netherlands is a dairy country, so if this trend continues, cheese will become more popular than meat. They approached Oudshoorn and Boer to see if they could find a way to make people consume more meat and learn them how to it. "At that time, you went to the butcher for meat and the supermarket was more a grocery store," says Boer. At that point in time, eating meat was not a daily activity, but meant for Sunday suppers. "It was something special to eat meat. I remember times when we had two boiled eggs for supper," says Boer.

But in the 70s, the meat industry grew very fast. Consuming meat became a common thing, but most housewives (gender liberation had not reached the kitchen yet) didn't grow up with meat, so they had to learn how to cook it. "Gourmetten was a perfect way for butchers to sell more meat," says Oudshoorn. "With this, we could promote the butcher and ensure that people bought more. Instead of one ounce of steak per person, you could eat three times as much with gourmetten."

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Gourmetten meat package

So they toured through the country about four times a week with their gourmet device to conquer housewives. Together with local butchers, they prepared mini-meats for the grill: miniature slavink, steak, and schnitzels were born. "We did it in three teams about three to four times a week. At one time, there were 60 to 120 people in the room; so we reached 1,200 people a week, " Boer says.

You can imagine that Boer and Oudshoorn were considered celebrities at that time. "We were frequently on the radio and were often in the newspaper," says Boer. And even though the gourmet legends have disappeared from the spotlight, you can't ignore their influence that resurfaces every year, from the Christmas issues of Dutch food magazines and supermarkets, where you can save up for a complete package of meats to cook with.

Sauce company Calvé questioned a group of people in 2010 and calculated that eight in ten Dutch practice gourmetten during Christmas. On the internet, there's lots of mixed opinions about gourmetten. In a Viva Magazine forum, one reader feels: "I'm a big eater and I don't have patience for all those gnome-sized portions." Another user has a very practical solution to this case: "I'm a heavy eater, too, but why don't you sit down a little longer at the table? Instead of one piece of meat, throw three pieces in your pan. And I often eat a lot of bread, which also fills you up nicely."

Are Boer and Oudshoorn proud that so many people in the Netherlands dust off their gourmet devices from the attic every year? "It's nice that it worked out so well, but I'm not necessarily proud of it. For us, it was just work," says Boer. "Thirty years ago, nobody knew what gourmetten was, and that's different now."

So how do they explain the huge success? "It is typically Dutch: it's easy and it's fun," says Oudshoorn. "You have to prepare a number of things, but once you sit down, you don't have to get up anymore." According to Boer, it has another big advantage. "If something fails, you cannot blame anyone, because you've done it yourself."

What they both find unfortunate is that nowadays, every supermarket is selling ready-to-eat meat packages. "The traditional butcher initially benefited much from the gourmet eater," says Oudshoorn. "But we don't endorse all that cheap meat that's being sold in the supermarkets. I always compare it to an old car versus a fancy Mercedes. Which one would you choose?" Boer agrees. "Supermarkets are really screwing things up for the independent stores. I will always keep promoting the artisanal butcher, and small bakeries, too. Their bread is just so much better."

At Oudshoorn's and Boer's houses, there will not be any gourmetting this Christmas. There will, however, be meat on the menus: a veal roast and sirloin. Do they still stand behind their meat message? "Everything you eat and drink should be in proportion," says Oudshoorn wisely. Still, you can always tempt the guys for an oldschool gourmet session, as long as you keep two rules in mind: buy your meat at a real butcher and use real butter. "Stir a piece of steak with garlic, onions, and mushrooms in butter. Add a little sea salt, black pepper, and relish and it's truly a feast."

Tagged:
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