I love having people over for dinner. It gives me an excuse to clean up my house, break out the cookbooks, plan a tasty menu and create the atmosphere for a lovely evening with friends. In the U.S, we spent a good deal of time having friends over for dinner or eating dinner at their houses. I’d go so far as to say this is common practice in the U.S.
Since we’ve moved to the Netherlands, we’ve hosted many people for dinner. We’ve invited single friends over, couples, whole families with a special side menu designed just for the kids. These friends are always thankful, enjoy the food and the conversation, and even comment months, if not years later about how fondly they remember those evenings. Some of my vegetarian soups and enchiladas have even been subject to not so subtle hints for an encore, resulting in me offering another dinner invitation. Yet in all my years in the Netherlands, by far and large it has been our expat friends who have reciprocated. In other words, if you invite a Dutch person over for dinner, don’t expect an invitation in return.
I didn’t even come to this ‘lack of dinner reciprocation’ realization until I was thinking about this first year in North Holland. I realized that despite the fact that we’d hosted a number of dinners in the last 11 months, the only one who has invited us over for dinner was our American friend. The more I thought about it, I realized this pattern had also proved true in The Hague. Our Hague expat friends had invited us over for dinner on multiple occasions, but the Dutch? We had to scratch our heads to come up with a short list.
There are few outliers of course. A handful of Dutch friends have invited us over for dinner (thank you Ineke! Thank you Joke!) My Dutch in-laws and sister and-brother-in-laws have also hosted us for dinner on numerous occasions. So it is possible. And to their credit, the Dutch are more than enthusiastic to invite you over for a cup of coffee with a sweet treat just about any time of day. But why the invitation stops there remains a mystery.
This would be a logical time to dive into self-doubt. Maybe my cooking sucks. Perhaps my food choices stray out of the Dutch comfort zone. I’m not so into stampot, knakworst or herring. Maybe I need a new deodorant. But based on Dutch directness and the frequent calls for seconds, I believe I can safely rule out these reasons.
I was in The Hague a few weeks ago visiting an American friend and we were reminiscing about all the lovely things we’ve done together. He and his German-South-African wife are both amazing cooks and we’ve spent a lot of time at each others homes dining and chatting for hours. Yet when I shared my perplexing realization that we were rarely invited to dinner by the Dutch, he jumped in to say they have had the same experience! They host often, but it is only their expat friends who return the favor!
So what is going on here? Surely, the Dutch eat dinner. Based on the fact that the local restaurants are often teeming with diners in the evening hours, the Dutch certainly enjoy a well put together meal that goes beyond the traditional stampot.
Perhaps it has to do with Dutch practicality. Dinner at home could be viewed as an intimate, yet utilitarian event; some necessity performed on a daily basis without much pomp and circumstance.
Coffee get-togethers, on the other hand, have an extremely social character in the Netherlands. There’s very little prep time and all of your energy and focus can be spent on socializing with your guest, not worrying about the dish in the oven and the timing of each course. With that reasoning, dinner would be relegated as impractical for a social occasion; unless there is some reason to combine the two.
Here’s a case from my own experience where practical met social, and the Dutch were all on board. When we were making the transition from The Hague to Schagen, we did it in stages. My husband and son (and 99% of our belongs) moved north before me so they could start their new jobs and new school respectively. I stayed behind in The Hague for a month to finish out my contract, and camped out in our empty house. I was sleeping on a blow up mattress and borrowed a table and chair from my place of employment so I had a place to eat and sit in the otherwise empty living room.
When I shared this situation with friends, the dinner invitations started rolling in, and this time, the Dutch also stepped up to the plate (that pun just happened!). For the majority of those 28 days my evenings were filled with Dutch home cooking. What is the difference? There was a practical necessity combined with a social deadline: I didn’t have much in my house to cook with and I was leaving town in 28 days. This apparently met the Dutch standards for a dinner invitation.
I return to The Hague every few months for Book Club and my Dutch friends are happy to host me overnight, quite often including dinner as part of the invitation. Once again; practical.
My goal is not to make my Dutch friends feel badly. My Dutch friends are gracious and inclusive. They invite me to coffee, to walk, cycle, go to the theater, the movies, a museum, to readings, you name it. I just want to figure out this one-way dinner ticket.
As I conclude this post, the Dutch ‘lack of dinner reciprocation’ theory is developing a few chinks in its armor. At the end of the school year, we hosted a dinner party for two of our sons’ friends and invited his friends’ families as well. They had such a good time that they stayed until almost midnight, finishing off all the cherries and banana slices by dipping them in the chocolate fountain (mine wasn’t as pretty as the photo shown here). Just last week, another mom in this group contacted us to say they had enjoyed the event so much, they hoped to make it a tradition. My first thought was that she hoped we’d do it again. But no! She was picking up the torch and inviting us for a dinner party at their house.
There’s yet more proof of change. I ran into a man whom we’d had over for dinner a few months ago with his family of five, and out of the blue he said, “I think we owe you an invitation for dinner.”
Many gurus teach you that you are truly giving when you don’t expect anything in return. My pleasant surprise to both of these invitations suggests I’m on the path to learning this lesson. The fact that I’m going to push the “publish” button on my blog suggests not!
I’d like to solve this riddle. Is it a cultural difference? What do you think?