During our time in Amsterdam, we crammed in as many art museums, historic canal houses and other sights, as was humanly possible in two and a half days. I reckon we walked on average about 6-7 miles per day. All of it beautiful, stacked full of history and on many levels, thought-provoking.
On this trip, I found myself applying a food lover’s eye to much of what I saw. Whether it was shivering through the sleet at the outdoor organic food market – Noordermarkt – or looking at still-life paintings of food and wine at the Rijksmuseum from the 1500s and 1600s, it occurred to me, food doesn’t just connect us to the people in our lives today, it’s a tangible connection to our past as well.
Take this gorgeous painting of fruit, bread and cheese (above). The artist, Floris Claesz Van Dijck lived from 1575-1651. What struck me as I admired this work at the Rijksmuseum, was that we had been served exactly the same meal at breakfast in our hotel – the wonderful Canal House – not a few hours earlier. Amazingly, even the lighting is similar. Maybe it’s just a Dutch style thing. Whatever it is, it’s dramatic and it works.
When you stop to think about, that’s pretty remarkable. Over a span of 500 years, you could argue that just about everything we touch as humans has changed, except the food on our plates. Now, perhaps this isn’t so true in the U.S. where Pop Tarts and sugary cereal have replaced protein and fruit as breakfast staples, but in the Old World, things aren’t so different.
As we wandered through the galleries food was a recurring theme. A bountifully laid table indicated wealth a few hundred years ago, while wine shows up in a lot of scenes, from merry-making to portraits. Nothing much changes, right?
Incidentally, the basement of the Rijksmuseum is well worth a visit. There you will find the most beautiful porcelain platters from hundreds of years ago, engraved crystal wine glasses that have survived the centuries, ornate silverware with ceramic handles and the most delicate of teacups that come with their own padded suitcase. I love to gaze on these artifacts and think about the gatherings and pomp and circumstance with which they were used. You could say we have lost much of the art of entertaining today.
We also visited a couple of historic Canal Houses, which have been preserved as closely as possible to their original period, namely the Museum van Loon and the Museum Willet-Holthuysen. The rooms I lingered in were not the fancy salons or gentleman’s retirement rooms, but of course, the kitchens and the dining rooms. While two or three hundred years ago, the kitchen wasn’t the domain of the owners of the house as it is today, the room itself hasn’t really changed so much. A sink. A range. A table. A place to store food and plates. While the design of the “things” has changed, the function and form hasn’t changed much at all.
As we live in ever faster, ever busier, more technologically-enabled times, I find it comforting to stop and reflect on the habits and things that have remained with us over hundreds of years and that tie us to our ancestors.