I’m perusing the American Women’s Club of Antwerp website. When I first moved to the Netherlands five years ago, I didn’t know what an expat was until I was one. Clueless and lonely, I tromped through the rain and wind – figuring out everything the hardest way possible. But I learned. This second go-around in Belgium, I know who to contact, what questions to ask, and what to look for. A glow from the fireplace flickers in my Antwerp living room. I stare into my computer and my eyes alight at the newcomer’s information on the AWCA website. In addition to monthly coffees to welcome the newly-landed, they also offer accompanied trips to a local grocery store, the British store, and the American store of Antwerp.
American. Store. Bingo. I open Google Maps. I bite my lip as the map focuses and my breath catches as the results are in – The Grare’ American Store is just a ten minute drive from my house! I slap the table then wave my husband over to the computer and express my excitement. A plan is crafted to visit the store within the week.
We drive, park. Anxious as two kids at Christmas. We open the door, a tiny bell clanging on the glass. Ready, set, go. McCormick and Tony Chachere Spices tantalize our palates (although, I learned this time, to just throw my entire spice cabinet into the corners of my suitcase before our one-way flight.) Cans of Pam smile from a cheerful corner. Betty Crocker cake mixes, Duncan Hines frostings, and sprinkles are ready to party. A wall of Mexican goods – jarred jalapenos, cheese dips, chipotle peppers, Pace picante sauce and fresh(-ish) tortillas – line another side of the store. There’s karo syrup, Cheetos, Stove Top stuffing, and bags upon bags of Toll House chocolate chips. I rejoice and embrace three boxes of Kraft Mac and Cheese like childhood friends. Goldfish and Cheez-Its round out the things-I’ve-addicted-my-children-to and I pick those up as well. There are boxes of jello in a rainbow of colors and plenty more things you never considered “American” but there you are – facing your truths – Sweet’n Low, marshmallows, microwave popcorn, and beef jerky.
We load up the tiny cart, eyeing expiration dates, and check out. The total bill was phenomenal, but did little to dampen our spirits. As we pack our groceries into the car my husband looks over at me. “You look as happy as well. . . an expat in an American grocery store,” and I had to laugh.
I wasn’t always a good cook. Like all things, it takes practice. Before my mom sent me off to college, she gifted me a Better Homes and Gardens cookbook and Xeroxed some of her favorite recipes. I made stuffed bell peppers, tacos, chili, and fried chicken in my college apartment. When I lived alone and worked in public accounting – a bowl of popcorn and a glass of wine sufficed most nights, but once in awhile I’d throw a dinner party for friends. The menu consisted of recipes I cut from newspapers or Tator Tot Hotdish (My Minnesota friend’s recipe. It fed the ‘hey- my-cousin-is-in-town, can-you-feed-him-and-four-of-his-18-year-old-friends type of dinner party). When my husband and I started dating, brunch entered on the scene – breakfast tacos, fried potatoes, and french toast. After we were married and I was still working, we signed up for eMeals – and I was introduced to the concept of menu planning. I loved the pre-made grocery lists, and recipes so easy even my husband could prepare them. But it wasn’t until we moved to the Netherlands that my skills really advanced. Mostly from pure necessity.
I was starving. I’d traded my Corporate America heels and convertible for boots and a double stroller. I’d push that American monster of a stroller (with six cup holders – “for your Starbucks cups,” the Dutchies joked to us) around the cobbles of our quaint and exhausting town. I’d walk and walk and walk. In the rain. In the snow. In the sun. In the wind. Sometimes all four seasons, within the same hour. We’d go to museums, the library, or the store. I’d pack my bags with fumbling efficiency (bag boys are non-existent in this continent) and I’d carry the bags home on my shoulders, while throwing the bottles of water (and wine) in the carryall basket underneath, in the belly of the monster.
I learned to menu plan, I had to. With a tiny fridge, freezer, and pantry, plus the task of carrying all groceries home – there was no room for waste. I perused my cookbooks, exploring old and new recipes. I only planned a few days at time. The days of weekly grocery shopping were long gone. The freshness of groceries (and lack of preservatives) of Europe is superior to America’s – and with that, all vegetable, fruit, milk, and bread purchases wouldn’t last more than a few days anyway. (I couldn’t carry a week’s worth of groceries home even if I tried anyway. . . )
Once planned and purchased, dinner preparation became my favorite (ahem, only) “alone” time of the day. I’d sit my children down in front of Elmo or Sesame Street, turn on the radio in the kitchen to drown out the puppets, then chop, stir, and create.
Every night we’d sit down as a family and eat. For years, I practiced. We’d host dinner parties for our expat friends – soup nights in the winter, fajitas for birthday parties, and brunches. My friends always praised my cooking and encouraged me. They made me want to explore more recipes and have always been my willing taste testers. In preparation for Thanksgiving dinner they’d ask my advice for substitutions or where to buy American products in the Netherlands.
I applied my new skills upon my return to Texas – four meal-worthy salads fed our guests at our summer housewarming party. We had Greek night for my son’s 1st birthday, a French-inspired (with a taste of New Orleans) menu for my daughter’s Paris birthday party, and Texas country cooking for our “Happy Trails to You” goodbye party. Each large and small dinner party was met with happy reviews (and requests for recipes) from my friends. It is these friends around the world, along with my husband, that encouraged my blog to expand from just stories, to what it is today.
So, with that – here are my most fan-raving recipes. I’ve created most of these recipes in three countries – the Netherlands, America (Texas is it’s own country, isn’t it?), and Belgium. I’ve added Pearls of Wisdom when applicable within each recipe, such as where to find cocoa powder in the grocery store in America vs. Europe, and also an overall Pearls of Wisdom for the general cooking hints and tips. I’ve tried to include measurements and conversions for American vs. European readers, including Celsius and Fahrenheit, butter from US cups to grams, etc. but just know, if you’re looking for perfection, I’m not your girl. Close enough, eyeballing things, a splash of this and a shake of that is how I roll. Don’t let that intimidate you, but relax, and have fun yourself.
In the meantime, I’m headed to the Antwerp American store tomorrow to stock up on those few items I can’t find in any Belgium grocery store – Toll House chocolate chips, Pam, and Jello are on the list. Well, that and Cheez-Its. I’ve learned to hand-make and home-bake a lot of things, but there’s a few you just can’t substitute. Some things just remind you of ‘home’.