On a Friday afternoon, I arrive at my parents’ house to drink tea and help my dad make Snert or split pea soup. My dad, Edgar Wierstra, finds this amusing more so when I explain the informed consent and ask him to sign it. It seems unnecessary to him, but he obliges me because he trusts me.
Really, this is not that different from any other visit except for I am getting in my dad’s way more than usual. Asking him “What are you doing?” or “How much of that did you use?” My dad is not a recipe kind of guy. He’s free form and his recipe comes with a lot of options—more than any other person I interviewed. I take copious notes to capture the recipe as he is making it today.
When dad tells me that I can use pig’s feet instead of ham to make snert, I wonder if I have ever eaten soup made from pig feet. He tells me that soon after Grandpa arrive, he went to the store to buy pork, but his beginner English got him pig’s feet instead. Embarrassed, he tossed the feet in the ditch on the way home. A Dutch nieghbour saw and realized what had happened and brought the discarded pig’s feet to my grandmother and showed her how to use them as a starter for snert.
Dad gets into story mode some related to being Dutch, some just stories that come to mind in the moment. As he starts stirring he tells one of my childhood favorites.
“THIS is the soup that Uncle Dirk peed in?!”
I’ve heard that story many times, but I never knew what kind of soup it was. My grandparents had a farm just outside of Edmonton where my grandpa Johannes (John) Wierstra raised pigs and crops. My grandmother Frankje would make Snert often. On this particular day she set down infant Dirk nearby to change his diaper. Apparently Dirk was not finished and let loose an energetic stream. I’ve always imagined a cartoon like arc that reached across the room, my Grandma Frankje, too slow to stop him from ruining the soup—a big deal in the 40s. Dad chuckles like he always does and it brings back a sense of childish amusement for me.
I make Dad let me chop vegetables for the soup as we cook. Mom makes me some tea.
Dad arrived in 1939 from Friesland when he was just a year old. Grandma and Grandpa Wierstra came to find a better life here in Canada. They had planned to go to Houston, B.C. where there is another Dutch immigrant community, but my pregnant Grandmother was too sick to make it past Edmonton. So they stayed. Really, my dad is as Canadian as I am and he has no memories of living in Holland.
Both my parents arrived in Canada through Halifax. In a few months, I am going with them to visit my Uncle Dirk’s family. When we are there we are going to go to Pier 21 to look for the ship my dad arrived in. Last time they were there, my parents were able to find my mom’s ship from 1951, but not my dad’s, much to his irritation. This time we are going armed with a copy of the immigration papers determined to trace his path from Friesland to Halifax—from Holland to Canada.
“Before the war I was a Dutch, and immigrant,” Dad tells me describing how other Canadians viewed him. “After the war when all the new immigrants arrived from Holland and Europe I became an old timer.”
While the soup simmers Dad pulls out his scrapbook about his trip to Europe in the 60s. It’s out because he wants to show it to his grandchildren who are making their first European trip this summer.
“I feel very Canadian.” he says. This surprises me because I think of both my parents as Dutch. “I realized I was Canadian when I went to Holland and I was a foreigner there. I’m not a Dutchman anymore.” Here it is again. Feeling Dutch until you go to Holland is a theme that came up in my interview with Gwen earlier in the week.
I ask my parents why they didn’t teach me Dutch growing up. They shrug. My dad’s Dutch is mediocre at best, but my mom speaks it well. My mom, Joanne, also came as a child, but in 1950 with the post war immigrants when she was 12 years old. She has memories of a childhood in Holland, mostly during the war. By the time my parents had children in the 1970s, they rarely spoke Dutch. I don’t know if it occurred to them to teach us the language. They spoke English.
That’s not to say that they didn’t pass on their culture, primarily in the food: boerenkool, nasi goring, boterkoek. Every Christmas we get a gift bag with a heavy block of Dutch (Gouda) cheese, pepernoten (tiny Christmas cookies), and a chocolate letter.
Before I leave, Dad declares the soup ready and scoops me up a container of soup with strict instructions to share with my husband, Nick. I will. And to bring the soup container back. I will, pointing out that I returned the last one filled with homemade speculaas just today. He fills it up to the brim and I look forward to eating it at lunch.
Dad disappears to the pantry and returns to give me one, then two, then three chocolate letters—highly out of season. They were giving them away at Ben’s Meat and Deli our local Dutch store. They can’t keep them to next Christmas, so they were a gift with purchase. I promise to share with my brother—although I have fleeting thoughts of creating a private chocolate stash. But I won’t. I’ll be a good daughter and share just as Dad asked.