I enter Gwen Vanderdeen-Paschke’s house on the Monday of the a long weekend. She invited me over because she likes to make Dutch soup with meatballs (soep met balletjes) when she has time to let it simmer. Her mom also used to cook it on the weekend—she still does when Gwen and her family go back to Southern Alberta for a visit.
While we read over her handwritten recipe from her mom we talk about other Dutch recipes that she remembers her mom making. “That’s what I want now,” she says. “I want the pofferts recipe. I want to make oliebollen, although I don’t know if I want to do any deep frying in my house.”
I’ve known Gwen since before we were both married. We have a lot in common: we’re both writers; we both work at home; we both have a parent from from the province of Groningen in Northern Holland; we both married non-Dutch men. Cooking at her house is familiar. I see the Dutch dish towels that both of us claim to be superior from any dish towels you can buy here. She has a collection of Dutch sprinkles and spices on the counter. Her four year old daughter spots the sprinkles and requires a sandwich before soup making can continue. Gwen obliges and her daughter and I discuss our favorite varieties of sprinkles.
Although Gwen’s mom did cook several Dutch recipes, “most of my Dutch heritage comes from my dad rather than my mom,” Gwen tells me. Her mom was born here and her maternal grandfather came to Canada as an infant, but her dad arrived in Canada when he was 19. Her mom didn’t speak much more Dutch than either of us do. Gwen’s dad’s ties to Holland were stronger, first hand experiences.
As we roll small meatballs together, we discuss our relationship to our parent’s homeland. Gwen’s ethnic identity has changed over time. “When I was younger I was very proud of being Dutch. I think because it’s something that makes you different from everyone else,” she says. Now spending more time outside of the Dutch immigrant community and having been to Holland she sees herself differently. “Now I consider myself to be more Canadian, whatever that means.”
I agree with her. I perceived myself as Dutch until I went to Holland. “I realized when I went there that it’s not where I’m from and it wasn’t like going home—which on some level I think I expected,” I say. When I traveled to Holland at 23, “I just had the realization that home was Canada.”
Gwen believes that her connection to her Dutch heritage has less to do with the country of the Netherlands, than it does with her dad. “I’m not sure if I have a connection to Holland, I have a connection to my dad,” she says, “in that sense it is my identity because it was my dad’s identity.”
We chuckle over some of the things that are Dutch but we didn’t realize it until later, for example niether of us could hear our parent’s slight accents because we were so used to it. Gwen thought the big truck on in their farmyard was a “tree-ton truck”—for a surprisingly long time. “I didn’t know it was supposed to be a number so I would have called it the tree-ton truck,” she says with a laugh. “I thought big trucks like that were meant to carry trees like logging trucks.” The fact that her dad generally used it to haul water, and never trees, just didn’t occur to her until much later. She just didn’t hear her dad’s accent making “three” into “tree.”
Gwen daughter has been intermittently interjecting into our conversation, alternating between wanting to help and wanting our attention. I ask Gwen if she will pass on her Dutch heritage to her daughter and second child who will be arriving this spring.
To this point, it hasn’t been a question, but Gwen doesn’t see herself actively sharing her Dutch identity with her daughter. It made sense that our parent’s would share their knowledge and love Holland with us: “It’s part of who they are, therefore it becomes part of the fabric of who we are,” says Gwen. “I think that is the most authentic thing.”
But Gwen questions if her the Dutch aspects of her identity will have the same authenticity when she shares them with her children. She probably won’t go out of her way to create a connection to Holland for her children, but share what comes naturally—most likely the food she loves from her own childhood. Besides Dutch is only half of her children’s story. They have a German Mennonite background from their father’s family.
The meatballs are finished and we add them to the bubbling broth. Gwen adds the spices and we leave the soup to simmer while we visit.
Gwen admits she doesn’t have a lot of Dutch items in her home. Most of what she has are “cheesy” artifacts from her youth. Some touristy items from her family vacation to Holland when she was 13. The items that hold the most meaning to her tend to be associated with people: a small piggy bank from her Oma and Opa when they visited from Holland; a clock at her parent’s house.
Gwen pulls out a book on the history of her church in Southern Alberta. “Really this book is the most meaningful,” she tells me. Not Dutch from Holland, but about the Dutch Canadian community she grew up in.
As we have tea and give Gwen’s daughter the long overdue attention, the smell of soup starts to permeate the main floor. The smell is familiar to both of us. When the soup is ready, I help Gwen set the table for dinner then her husband and daughter join us in a familiar meal of bread and meatball soup.