Wednesday, May 16, 2012

You say kastanje, I say klonker

Photo courtesy of Nieuweband
A few years ago, in an effort to behave like a real grown-up and cook a proper meal, I downloaded a recipe for roasted winged beast of one kind or another and went to the supermarket in search of the necessary ingredients, one of which was a jar of chestnuts. At the supermarket I had little trouble finding most of the other ingredients, but by my third lap around the store, I still had not found the chestnuts. They were only needed for the stuffing, but being a perfectionist with the emotional maturity of a four-year old, I decided that if I didn’t have chestnuts, the whole meal would be ruined, as well as my entire weekend and possibly my husband’s as well. It was roast bird with port-enriched cranberry chestnut stuffing or no roast bird at all. I would find chestnuts or else be declared world’s worst adult, after which I could promptly regress to Jell-O for dessert and colouring outside the lines.

Before I sacrificed myself on the altar of failure, I decided to check with one of the store employees in case maybe they did have chestnuts but I had somehow miraculously missed them on my multi-leg tour of the aisles. I approached a supermarket employee who was busy stacking shelves.

“Excuse me?” I said.  

“Hi, yes. Um. Well (which in Dutch sounds a bit like “Hoy, ya. Eh. Now”).  I’m looking for something. I think they’re called klonkers.”

“Klonkers?” she said. The puzzled expression on her face convinced me instantly that there was not and never had been any foodstuff called klonkers in the history of Dutch cuisine. I would have to resort to Plan B.

I said, “The English word is chestnuts.”

She repeated the word ‘chestnuts’ in something that approximated English but it was clear it was her first time with the word and she had no idea what it meant.
“I’ll go ask my colleague,” she said.

She went away and came back with a sixteen-year-old boy who was apparently her go-to linguist. I repeated the part about how I was looking for something that I thought was called klonkers in Dutch. I hoped he would jump in and say “Oh, klonkers! Of course we have klonkers. Come right this way!” This did not happen, so I also repeated the part about how they were called ‘chestnuts’ in English. The sixteen-year old shook his head. Maybe, he suggested, if I explained a little more about what kind of product this ‘chestnuts’ was, they would be able to help me.

“Well,” I began. “They come from trees. You place them inside of birds. Usually at Christmas.”

The girl employee and the boy employee exchanged looks.

“Lemons!” the girl offered. Yes, that was it. I needed help finding the blindingly yellow fruit that was displayed prominently near the entrance of the store.

“Bread!” said the boy hopefully. Now, not only was I actually holding a bag of bread in my hand at that moment, but in what world would a squishy food ever be called klonkers? (not that any food actually is called klonkers, as it turns out, but still).

Seeing that we were at an impasse, I thanked them, checked out my cartload of things that were not chestnuts, and left the store. As I loaded up my bike with carrots and cranberries and luxury chocolates that would never know the joy of sharing a table with chestnuts, it began to rain, just like in the movies when the person is having a bad day, like when their husband leaves them or someone dies or they lose their job. My day was just like that, I thought. Thanks to the recipes section of the Martha Stewart Living website I had become the tragic hero of my own sad life-movie.

Back home, I threw the damp loaf of bread on the table and sobbed into my arms that I hated this country and its stupid language.

“What happened this time?” my husband wanted to know.

“What’s the Dutch word for ‘chestnuts’?” I asked him through pitiful tears.

“Kastanjes,” he said. “Why?”

Later, after both the bread and my eyes had dried out, I was able to look back on the day and find the whole thing a little bit funny. I even laughed about it, all the way through our dinner of pheasant with port-enriched cranberry walnut stuffing.


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  1. The British call horse-chestnuts (the ones you can't eat) 'conkers'. British schoolchildren (used to) play a game with them named, you guessed it, 'conkers': they would bore a hole in them, thread a cord through them and then attempted to destroy another kid's dangling chestnut by flicking their own against them.

    Anyway, we Dutch have a lot of horsechestnut trees, but eating the edible types is not in our food-culture. Until ten years ago I had never heard of them (I saw them used by a Britis TV cook in some BBC Christmas program) and until three years ago I had never SEEN them in any shop.
    Same with the cranberry thing. They are a relatively new thing on the foodblock here in the Netherlands.

    Can't see what the attraction is, though. I heartely dislike both chestnuts (blech!) and cranberries (yuck! Sour!).

    1. Thank you, dear Anonymous, for this fascinating background on the humble chestnut! Some dark dusty part of my memory now recalls the British word 'conkers'. Maybe I repressed knowledge of the word following some (as yet still repressed) chestnut-related incident.

      This clearly explains everything. The same dark corner of my brain that learned the word ‘conkers’ once upon a time must have been taking executive decisions that fateful day in the Albert Heijn.

      In any case, I feel the support for a change from 'kastanjes' to 'klonkers' is certainly mounting. I'm seriously considering lobbying Rutte. Or the Queen. Or the Toppers.