To talk about our family's 'gastronomy' is perhaps pretentious. There is, both on the Bentein side of the family as on the part of the family Debaere, no continuation of a real family tradition for culinary feats or cooking secrets. Like in many families, certain dishes are prepared more times than others and recipes are passed from mother to daughter. Still, note that there are some differences in the eating habits of the previous generations of the two branches of the family. These differences do however not translate into large differences in taste perception of the current generation. The story below makes this clear.
From the Bentein side of the family we can say that the maternal grandmother (Hortensia Hennaert) had a firm hold on the kitchen. She was indeed a housewife, like many women of her age, and so it was her task to provide the daily meals. Her husband was a fisherman at first, then an employee in the state fleet, and thus not particularly well off. So, the meals were often 'regular meals' and often with fish. Before W.W. II, and even in the years thereafter, fish was cheap and meat expensive, hence the diet of fish. How ironic is that, now, in 2010. Fish is becoming expensive and all sorts of meat are relatively cheap. The medical branch however is now seeking ways to promote diets with more fish.
The dishes the author remembered from his childhood with his grandmother were mainly seafood. A favorite dish of the family was a simple dish with boiled potatoes and boiled cod (the very jaws of it) in a butter sauce. The whole was served like a stew. As children, we were always on our guard. This was not due to the taste, but the fact that grandmother (without her spectacles), had not removed all the fishbones in de dish. Small bones we learned to live with, but for a little boy a 2 inch long fishbone was life-threatening!
Now, you would think from the above story that grandfather did nothing in the kitchen. This is not entirely true. As a fisherman, he already learned at a young age to 'cook your own meals' as it is popularly known. And it was even an unwritten law at home that, if fish had to be baked (mostly flatfish then), he did it and grandmother was not allowed to lift a finger.
The next generation brought change in eating habits. The mother (Françoise Vandewalle) had a richer palate, not least because she had attended hotel school. The author has saved in his achives an example of her beautiful hand-written and beautifully illustrated courses. Because of this culinary knowledge, the family was made aware of "foreign" foods, such as Italian and Asian cuisine (and always a bit "à la façon du chef"). In 2010, we don't understand the fuss, because nowadays those dishes are ubiquitous.
But mother also cooked to experiment. She was an artist in her thinking and doing, and that manifested itself in her kitchen behavior. So it is no surprise then that sometimes the kids were served strange combinations. Usually, the culinary experiment was not bad at all, but sometimes it was. At least, one learned to look at something new with an open mind.
As adults, my wife and I learned to appreciate yet another kitchen. As the eldest of six children it was "normal" that I would fulfil my military service. I ended up making a career in Defence. So I learned the army kitchen, from the bottom (peeling potatoes) up to the top (feasts), ashore (the refectory) and on board (the galley). Whatever one tells (or rather: makes believe) the general public, the army kitchen actually reflects the entire Belgian cuisine, both from the north and from the south of the country. The basis of this cuisine is the use of seasonal products in a simple but nutritious way. Precisely the trend that is promoted again today. But because the Government is always short of money, sometimes the kitchen staff has to perform magic to convert the scarce resources into a wholesome meal on the table.
So, ingenuity was the main sauce. Survival Rations which threatened to run past their expiration date were incorporated into hot appetizers. During severe storms at sea, a greasy spaghetti Bolognese was often announced. The combination of both invariably resulted in a reduction of consumption of food and the money thus saved was used to serve an "improved" meal when the weather was fair again. During long stays abroad, local food was of course purchased and processed in the meals. A la guerre comme à la guerre!
As is the case in any restaurant a meal depends on the cook's skills. This is also true for Defence. When I hear the older (and younger) generation complain about the quality of the meals (It's "military grub"), then I can't help but ask myself some questions. How "rich" are their meals at home (the daily pot of chocolate spread on the dinner table is - perhaps in their eyes - a feast, but tI think somewhat differently)? What an organization isn't required for an annual family dinner for a dozen people (while the army cooks must feed whole regiments on a daily basis and be exposed to criticism from all ranks, high to low)!
I am convinced that it is precisely the "military grub" that opened the eyes and stomachs of entire generations of young people to anything other than their monotonous home grub. It is also in that same army that I got to know and appreciate good wines. Thank you for that.
Sweet and necessary
A very different culinary history is the short story of the family Debaere. We can be brief about the previous generations. Given that the current generation has no knowledge of their grandmothers, there is no inheritance of a culinary tradition. The mother of the current family Debaere (Simone Vanpassel), hardly knew her own mother. Perhaps because of that and perhaps also because of her full time job, she looked upon family meals only as something that had to happen. Sometimes she didn't eat her own dishes because her other work was not done yet. Her husband did, however, appreciate certain dishes and is described by his children as a sweet tooth. For example, he loved macaroni with milk sauce and brown sugar (a somewhat strange combination).
Out of sheer necessity to help her mother and just to put something tasty on the table for her father, the daughter then began cooking herself and at superior level than she had learned. Over the years, by research in cookbooks and by her own experiments, she has reached a level of preption of meals that can easily compete with a restaurant. Because some children in the family do not appreciate a normal variation in meals, she prepares two daily menus. As proof you'll see the two menus for Christmas Eve of 2010. Help in the kitchen by the spouse or the daughters is rarely declined.
So, the tradition of dining in the family Bentein-Debaere from the mother's descent was less "inherited" from the previous generations, but is more an institution of the current generation (mother and father). This makes that over time some division of tasks arose in the kitchen. Mother readies the bulk of the meals. Father takes care now and then of some extras. The daughters themselves have finally started to do the finer work in the kitchen, starting with pastries. Gradually that results in some tasty new dishes.
I found it unfortunate that the successful experiments of the present generation were not preserved for posterity. This had to change. Therefore, a link is provided in the menu to a section of the site with the family recipes.
Of course, delicious food is accompanied by fine wines. So, a link in the menu is also provided to a list of wines tasted by the family and considered satisfactory.