I published the following piece in the last-but-one issue (November 1990) of The Reformed Journal. Given First Things‘ ongoing effort to increase mutual understanding between Catholics and evangelicals, I thought my piece might provoke some movement in that direction, so I post it below for our readers’ general edification.
When I was a child, I thought that all restaurants were owned by Greeks. My father did not himself own a restaurant, but whenever we would visit one, he would invariably strike up a conversation with the proprietor in their shared Hellenic tongue. So often did this happen that I thought Greeks must come, not so much from Greece or Cyprus, as from the kitchens of local cafés near Chicago. It wasn’t until the end of my first decade that I began to realize that members of other national communities also made excellent restaurateurs. Italian, French, Lebanese, and Chinese establishments were readily available and well worth visiting. As an early adolescent I even developed a taste for Japanese sushi, that exotic and colourful ensemble of raw fish and rice.
But through all this I noticed something peculiar. I never saw any restaurants specializing in Swiss, Dutch, English, or Scottish cuisine. In my youthful imagination I figured this must be for one of a number of possible reasons: either these northwest Europeans were too busy doing other things that made them more money with fewer headaches, or they couldn’t cook. Or perhaps what they did cook wasn’t worth sharing with the public.
Some years ago the German sociologist Max Weber wrote a book entitled The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in which he argued that Protestantism, and especially Calvinism, provided fertile ground for the rise of capitalism. Those countries that had undergone the Reformation – such as Switzerland, Holland and England – were economic powerhouses, while those unaffected by the Reformation – such as Italy and Spain – remained economic backwaters.
I will neither dispute nor defend Weber’s thesis here, but I do wish to propose a corollary. After some 35 years [add 20 more by now!] of scientific observation, I believe it is possible to articulate a more or less iron law concerning the relation between religion and national cuisine, which I shall take the liberty of calling Koyzis’ Law. Koyzis’ Law holds that those countries influenced by the Reformation produce unimaginative (at best) and sometimes horrific (at worst) cuisines, while those lands bypassed by the Reformation originate highly interesting and varied cuisines. The Dutch, with their rugged Calvinism, are a case in point.
As a Greek American living and working in a largely Dutch-Canadian environment (Redeemer [University] College and the Christian Reformed Church), I have adopted a “when-in-Rome” policy and have gradually plucked up the courage to sample so typical a Netherlandic delicacy as boerenkool. And I have actually come to like it. Yet, as I see it staring up at me from the platter I find myself thinking it would be vastly improved with a little vinegar and olive oil, and perhaps a hint of oregano.
But even the bravest of palates must draw the line somewhere. The Italian supermarket across the street from me contains, of all things, a small Scottish section in the frozen foods case. There, in all its Caledonian glory, one can find the notorious haggis, which only the most hardened Celt (or perhaps stoic Calvinist) could love. The thought of sinking my teeth into a sheep’s stomach filled with the poor creature’s minced lungs and liver (and who knows what else) is enough to make me run back for some more moussaka and Turkish coffee.
It has also caused me to wonder whether I really am a Calvinist at heart. I think so. My gastronomical proclivities have not as yet prompted a crisis of faith. Still, I sometimes feel a little guilty when I experience so much satisfaction eating those typical products of an unreformed worldview while dining with, say, the Eastern Orthodox. My divided loyalties become even more apparent when on family occasions I find myself seated at a table spread with lamb, stuffed vine leaves, and bottles of retsina, and blank stares greet my cheery “eet smakelijk.”
Still, I can take comfort in the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Whenever I am tempted to forsake my Calvinism for another tradition boasting more culinary attractions, I have only to remind myself of the witness of generations of sturdy Calvinist saints who have had to endure much more than I have. Besides, who says I can’t wash down those croquettes with another glass of ouzo?