Deep-fried delights of love for those with a soul
Des Moines certainly offers guilty pleasures. You know, like drinking a craft beer at a movie theater at 10 a.m. on a work day — a direct ticket to hell for any hard-working, sober Iowan. Or going to the farmers market and never once purchasing a raw vegetable — God invented breakfast pizzas for a reason, folks. Or lecturing your kids on the dangers of fast food — and then having an existential moment alone in the B-Bop’s parking lot with an order of large fries on one knee and a chocolate malt balanced on the other.
Yup. Guilty pleasures.
In the world of the Netherlands, there are other guilty pleasures.
Sure, sure, there are the obvious ones. Like the world-famous Red Light District that advertises sex for sale from the street-front windows. Trust me, nothing says “come hither” like a bored-looking woman fully absorbed in her smart phone while wearing a bikini in a room the size of a closet. And then there are the oddly-named coffeehouses that, surprise, surprise, don’t sell coffee. Haze weed — 12 euro. Skunk weed — 7.50 euro. Cappuccino — so priceless it cannot be purchased!
But sex and drugs pale when stacked against a true Dutch guilty pleasure — the infamous OLIEBOLLEN. “Oil balls” for the literalist among you. Deep-fried delights of love for those with a soul.
“Everything is pointing to the end of December. That is the New Year, when everyone by tradition comes to get oliebollen. The stand is very full. That is the time for champagne, fireworks and oliebollen.”Linnie Vermolen, a soft-spoken Dutch man who seems genuinely excited about Sinterklaas and Christmas and oliebollen, runs the stand Gebakkraam Vermolen in The Hague, Netherlands. His oliebollen stand, along with many other oliebollen pop-ups, appears on the first of November and disappears late New Year’s Eve.
Linnie is the king of oliebollen.
“I have done this for 28 years. I was doing this when I was 20. My mother first. She even worked here yesterday.”
A group of kids come up to the stand. Gerda, Linnie’s aunt, laughs and jokes with them as she serves out the hot oliebollen. Some plain, some with raisins, others with apples or cream. They are gently sprinkled with powdered sugar and placed on napkins to be eaten immediately.
My mouth waters.
I forget my next question.
Fortunately, Linnie continues the interview by himself.
“Oliebollen is a Dutch tradition at the end of the year from a very long time ago.”
He’s absolutely right. There’s a Dutch painting by Aelbert Cuyp from 1652 that shows a young woman with a basket of oliebollen. And there’s even a recipe for oliebollen in a 1667 Dutch cookbook.
Linnie pulls a fresh batch of oliebollen out of the fryer. I set down my tape recorder and hold out a napkin like the poor, starving Oliver Twist in the workhouse.
Oblivious to my suffering, Linnie continues working at the deep fat fryer.
“This is like a donut, but different. A donut is like a little bit cake. This has gist. For the rising.”
Gist? Of course, yeast.
But what about all the calories in oliebollen?
“Every morning when I’m here, I take one. And every evening when I leave, I take one.” Gerda tells me this with the clear authority of a mother’s stamp of approval.
Gerda instantly became my mother as I look to her in the hopes of finally getting an oliebollen.
She turns to help another customer.
Ahhhhhhh . . . . . . . I lean weakly against the inside of the stand.
By the way, oliebollen is not just about a taste delight, it is anchored in the harsh reality of surviving the night. Apparently, the German goddess Perchta goes a little berserk around the winter Yule time. Without much provocation, she will cut open your belly with a sword while you sleep, which is not a good thing. Fortunately, if you eat enough oliebollen, THE SWORD SLIDES OFF YOUR BODY! No kidding. I’m not making this up. This is why we have oliebollen at this time of year.
Oil balls save lives. Now there’s a jingle that should be made into a Christmas standard.
More customers arrive, to my growing disappointment and rumbling stomach.
“Every year there is an oliebollen competition. Last year I won first place in The Hague. Secret people come to judge. And we surprisingly won.” Linnie says this in the matter-of-fact Dutch manner that carefully guards against bragging. But he should be bragging. Winning this newspaper-sponsored event is a big deal in Dutch world.
“We work very hard to be good. But we like it very much. Everyone who comes to us is happy. And when they leave . . . they are even happier.”
And, at last, I too am happy.
Linnie claps me on the arm and smiles with his twinkling eyes. Gerda gives me a big sack of hot oliebollen. And, with my armful of oil balls, I’m suddenly back to my ordinary life… a life of guilty pleasure, of course, as I wipe the powdered sugar from my lips and rub my sword-resistant belly. ♦
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www. joesneighborhood.com.