Monday, April 21, 2014

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Raising a Glass to Johannes van Dam, Who Taught Me How to Handle Gout

"Jesus, Jesus, allmächtiger Gott, 
ai, ai, ai, 
sei vorsichtig, Alois! 
Das Zipperl!"

~ Ludwig Bemelmans
Hotel Splendid

While otherwise in good health, I have developed gout, a sort of arthritis caused when uric acid crystalizes in joints. Although the condition has a genetic component, certain foods can aggravate it. Drinking alcohol to excess is almost certain to bring an attack. Mine is the classic version: a hot, swollen joint in my big toe. Fortunately, the attacks are infrequent, but when they strike, the pain is exquisite. Even a breeze could bring agony on those days. The writer Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962) describes the condition in a paragraph that might as well be describing me:
Grandfather had several times a year attacks of very painful gout, which in Bavaria is called Zipperl. Much of the time, one or the other of his legs was wrapped in cotton and elephantine bandages. If people came near it, even Mother, he chased them away with his stick saying: "Ah, ah, ah" in an ecstasy of pain and widening his eyes as if he saw something very beautiful far away. Then he would rise up in his seat, while his voice changed to a whimpering "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus."
Johannes van Dam
Photo: Harry Meijer
My old friend Johannes van Dam coached me on how to deal with gout and what prescriptions to ask of my doctor. Johannes, an indefatigable food writer who dominated Amsterdam’s dining scene for decades, suffered from the affliction as well. When I used to visit the city — “our cosmopolitan village,” he called it — the two of us would eat all over town: bakeries, restaurants, cheese shops and butchers, markets, cafes, Indonesian and Chinese restaurants…wherever there was good food to be had. Forget American restaurant critics who traveled incognito; even the postman on the street would hail him by name. Now and then, we had tea or hot chocolate and simply watched movies at his flat above the Athenaeum bookstore in the center of town. Like my own home, his was packed with thousands of books dealing with food and drink.

It was he who told me about allopurinol to prevent an attack of gout and colchicine if one struck anyway. I learned also that a shot of Torodal (ketorolac tromethamine) on the first day of an attack can turn me from a bed-ridden invalid to a hobbling, cursing cripple. A vast improvement, believe it or not. Sadly, Johannes was struck by a heart attack the day we were to have dinner together in Amsterdam last year. While my travel companions hit coffee shops and the Van Gogh Museum the next day, I sat with van Dam in hospital. A friend of his, another well-known Dutch writer, came by to chat as well. On hearing that I was an American food historian, he made a slight jab. “Well, I suppose you must write about hot dogs and hamburgers, such things as that.” “No,” my old friend interjected before I could say a word, “He is a serious scholar; he is the American Johannes van Dam.” A lie, of course, but it was kind of him to say so.

Walking him down to the hospital’s newsstand, I shook his hand in the lobby and turned away, knowing it was the last we’d see each other. Van Dam, the man who taught me to love Amsterdam as if it were my own hometown, died not long after. "I know you love a stiff drink," he once told me, "but it has its problems and gout is one of them." Nevertheless, I'll raise a glass to Johannes van Dam. Just one.

Gout. Feh. Seems I may have it for life. If only the same could be said of old friends.


  • In 2011, Van Dam and veteran barman Philip Duff each weighed in on the origins of the Dutch eggnog advocaat. Summertime is coming. Certainly not advocaat weather, but why not bookmark the recipe I use and bust it out once the weather turns cold? 
  • The University of Amsterdam has awarded, the past two years, the Johannes van Dam Prize "given annually in recognition of an author’s extraordinary achievements in communicating gastronomical knowledge." Claudia Roden received the first prize, Harold McGee the second

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