Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Butter Up

How can you not love a city that’s got a street named after butter?
Sorting through my photo library recently, I came across a shot of a street sign I took when I was on vacation in Belgium last summer. Why did I take it? Well, on the one hand, I wanted to remember the narrow cobble-stone street down which I wandered, happily munching cookies, waffles, and chocolate. But truth be told, I also wanted to remember the sign on which was printed the street’s name: Rue au beurre/Boterstraat. Hence my photo.

For complicated historical reasons, roughly half the city’s population speaks French and the other half Dutch (or, more precisely, the dialect of Dutch known as Flemish); thus street signs appear in both languages. So too do the menus that restaurants display to entice hungry passers-by. The dish that best epitomizes Belgian cuisine, as any visitor knows, is mussels and fries, but it’s called by its French name of moules-frites as often as it is by its Dutch name of mosselen-friet. If there’s a contender for the national dish, it’s got to be Belgium’s answer to boeuf bourgignon—but the dish appears variously as carbonnade de boeuf à la Flamande and as Vlaamse stoverij.

Of course I know that, on the one hand, it’s simply a matter of two names for the same thing. What the Dutch call boter, mosselen, and stoverij, the French call beurre, moules, and carbonnade. On the other hand, as I have so often observed, translations of food names are seldom as straightforward as you might think.  If they were, why would we so automatically prefer the French names to the Dutch ones? Who can deny that beurre has a panache that boter simply doesn’t have? And just think of the difference between soupe de poisson (or de poulet) and Waterzooi. Similar ingredients but one sounds like a delicious fish (or chicken) soup and the other . . . ? Well, the other you probably have never even heard of.

But here’s the rub. As much as we prefer French names, our English food words are a lot closer to the Dutch ones. Case in point: we put butter on our bread just as they spread boter on their brood.

So why are we so quick to prefer beurre? And why do the guidebooks refer to Brussels’ chief tourist destination—its square surrounded by ornately decorated and steeply gabled guildhalls—as the Grand Place, rather than the Grote Markt, as it's known by half the population?


Because for historical reasons even more complicated than the ones I referred to above, we speakers of Germanic languages (which include English and Dutch, not to mention German, Norwegian, and Swedish) have been brought up to believe that if it’s French, it’s got to be more sophisticated. But do champignons a l’escargot really taste so much better than paddestoelen met slakkenboter? They’re both just mushrooms with snail butter. And are crêpes really so much tastier than pannekoeken? Or have we just been taken in by self-proclaimed Gallic resonance?

Admittedly not as elegant as a mille-feuille, it’s the chewy waffles with their nuggets of pearl sugar I’m still dreaming of. And, by the way, that’s wafel, not gaufre.

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