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Alma Whittaker craves wentelteefjes

He looked at her for a while longer, then took a leisurely sip of coffee and helped himself to a bite of wentelteefje from the small plate before him. Clearly, she had interrupted an evening snack. She would have given almost anything for a taste of that wentelteefje. It looked and smelled wonderful. When was the last time she'd had cinnamon toast? Probably the last time Hanneke had made it for her. The aroma made her weak with nostalgia. But uncle Dees did not offer her any coffee, and he certainly did not offer her a share of his beautiful, golden, buttery wentelteefjes. 

 – Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things, chapter 28

From the blurb, I expected this book to be about a female Newt Scamander-type character (see, I can't even think of a woman equivalent) who travelled the world and went on adventures far ahead of her time, in a male-dominated profession, in search of fantastic botanical specimens. And though this would have been a super cool story, I'm even more grateful that it's not quite like that, because it was in the unexpectedness of Alma's life that I found deeper lessons. If this is a book you think you might read sometime, you might want to skip the next few paragraphs (the last three are safe!); I never really give out spoilers, but you might deduce certain events that you'd definitely be better off surprised by.

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The story spans an entire lifetime, and, unusually, the "adventures" begin well into it; the first few decades of Alma's life seem to be a slow preparation for the rest. She even comes up with her own concepts of time  an ever interesting trope in books, be it "the amber of the moment" in Slaughterhouse Five or reconsidering the past in The Sense of an Ending. Alma believes that there are four types of time: Human Time (limited, horizontal, quick, "a mere blink of existence"), Divine Time ("incomprehensible eternity"), Geological Time ("moved at the pace of stones and mountains"), and her own theory, Moss Time ("nothing seemed to happen, but then, a decade later or so, all would be changed").

This is a story of possibility, which demonstrates that even if things don't shape up the way you wanted, life might surprise you at any time; there's no "peak" or "prime", and you might find yourself hiking in forests with a cane or sailing across the world when you never thought you could  a message I appreciate very much right now. That it's never too late to find someone who understands you, to belong, to have an epiphany, to go on a quest, to fall in love, to make a new friend, to learn something new.

In her mid-50s, Alma arrives in Amsterdam, after half a life of work, accomplishment, experience, and even, eventually, adventure. She presents herself to her uncle, whom she has never met, to ask for a job at the Hortus Botanicus. He hasn't been expecting her, but hardly registers his surprise; after all, why should anyone, even his niece from across the world, interrupt his evening snack?

The staring recommenced. This time, Alma allowed the silence to stand. She watched as her uncle took a forkful of wentelteefje and dipped it in his coffee. He enjoyed his bite unhurriedly, without making so much as a drip or a crumb. She needed to learn where she could procure such fine wentelteefjes as this.

For Alma, this moment is a realisation. The silence allows for the processing of feelings, and a conclusion that this is a true homecoming, to her actual roots  not just Dutch, but also botanical. 
With no sense of when or where it all might end, or whether her destiny was or was not meant to intertwine with the destiny of this old man, she felt she was on familiar territory here – Dutch territory, van Devender territory. She had not felt so at home in ages.
This is a rare scene in a book that doesn't really mention food, and when I was thinking about ideas for this project, I was surprised that I could recall it months after reading it. Perhaps because it's unexpected, perhaps because it's even comic, and mostly because I was happy that Alma had found her place, where she could be herself and which deserved her after everything she had been through. 


It's a long scene spanning seven pages, and wentelteefjes are mentioned seven times. This comfort food epitomises good things, that life is about to take a turn for the better. The stare-off as niece and uncle appraise each other punctuated by stilted dialogue is contrasted with the rich, sensory role played by food, which tempts sight, smell, taste, emotion. And Alma is not the only one who finds family in Holland.
As Alma was saying this, she watched her uncle spear another small triangle of wentelteefje on his fork. Rather than carry the fork to his mouth, though, he tilted sideways in his chair, slowly sliding one shoulder down, in order to offer the food to Roger the dog – even as he kept his eye on Alma, pretending to listen to her with complete absorption.
'Oh, do be careful...' Alma leaned over the table in concern. She was about to warn her uncle that this dog had a terrible habit of biting anyone who tried to feed him, but before she could speak, Roger had raised up his misshapen little head and – as delicately as a fine-mannered lady – removed the cinnamon toast from the tines of the fork.
Later, not even wentelteefjes would comfort Roger, but until then, it was unconditional love.


Wentelteefje is essentially the Dutch version of what I know as French toast, which I've had in my childhood and also made a few times (there is also a savoury version that's popular in India, which I could never get behind). This dish traces its origins to the Roman empire and was recorded as early as the first century CE; it is popular around the world, known by different names in different countries, from "eggy bread" in the UK, "Arme Ritter (Poor Knights)" in Germany and "pain perdu" in France to "golden bread" in Canada and "Bombay toast" here (I had no idea). The Dutch name is more colourful – "wentelen" means "to turn over", and "teef" translates to...erm..."female dog".

It requires a few basic ingredients and is as simple as it gets – mix eggs, milk, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla; dip slices of bread in it; fry in a pan. I usually use oil to fry them, but most wentelteefjes recipes recommend butter, which results in a rich, saltier taste that complimented the additional powdered sugar and cinnamon sprinkled on top. 


I was saving this one for a busy month, which has now arrived as I prepare to launch my business. Doing a monthly project is a challenge sometimes, but working within its confines also drives me to keep creating. So here I am, writing on a Sunday, clearing my week for the busy times to come. 
Dees shrugged, nonchalant as could be, and stabbed another piece of wentelteefje. 'We will manage,' he said, and fed the dog again, straight from the fork.
Sure could use some comfort food right now.

Comments

  1. Beautiful! The writing, the photography, the pace at which these pieces unfold. I'm also now intrigued by the book, and am adding it to the list of to-be-reads.

    Also, best wishes with the business! Looking forward to reading more about it here (yes?:))

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    1. Thanks for your comment Koyel, I love hearing from you and knowing that people are reading :) this has felt like a really wholesome project so far, even with the deadline-induced stress haha. And yes, do check out the book!

      Thank you for the wishes! My website is now re-launched and you can find it in the menu here :)

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