This is Hydrofit, aerobics in the swimming pool, kicking in warm water, surrounded by senior citizens, laughing. Distinctly uncool, it’s still a great workout. You try to do flips, run cross-country, and do crunches with ankle weights, the water retarding your progress. It’s one of my favorite activities in the world.
And one of my favorite places to talk about food.
For the past year and a half, I’ve been bobbing in the water, talking with Mary about where to buy great bread, asking Marguerite about the French restaurant she ran in the 80s, chatting about the latest heirloom tomatoes and eggplant crops at the farmers’ markets. With the smell of chlorine in our noses and our bodies suddenly lithe like dolphins, we pondered lunch and exchanged recipes. Invariably, a newcomer would ask, at the end of the class, “Do you people talk about food like this every day?” Mary would throw back her head and laugh her raspy, 74-years-of-being-alive laugh. I’d giggle too. And we’d say, “You bet.”
Mary taught me to make impeccable chicken salad, roasted potatoes, and crisp green beans. She has seven children, and every morning, when they were growing up, she made three loaves of homemade bread, so they could all have fabulous sandwiches for breakfast. She still makes everything from scratch, still walks down to the Market for great meats, still insists on feeding everyone around her, even though she needs to be in bed by 7 pm, with the oxygen tank nearby. She has never stopped caring about great food, and she never will. She’s my guru.
And there are a dozen other people there I love, all of whom know how to laugh, to cook, and to share recipes.
And do powerful side-to-side shoot throughs.
I only found Hydrofit—and thus all these food experiences—because of the bad car accident I had last December. Nearly unable to walk for back and hip pain, I hobbled my way to the pool last March and slipped into that warm water. I could barely complete the class, but I met these people right away. I haven’t stopped going or wanting to know them, since.
It’s a community I would never have expected, but it’s a community I have come to love.
Sunday it all came to an end. Granted, we have the indoor pools in Queen Anne and Ballard, and we’ll go. But there’s nothing like swimming outdoors to make you feel like a little kid.
When the morning began, the sky gloomed grey. Rain pattered on the windows. When I went out to fetch the Sunday Times from off the porch, my hair got doused. Not a day for an outdoor swim, you say? Forget about it. Even if it had been thundering and lightning, I still would have gone. But driving toward Magnolia, I spotted a patch of blue on the horizon. By the time I climbed in the pool, it had stopped raining. And halfway through the class–in which we completely ignored the affable young man who halfheartedly tried to teach us while we talked to each other instead–we craned our necks toward the south, and watched the sun emerge from behind the clouds. We were bathed in glorious sunlight. Every one of us turned our heads, as though on cue. The pool erupted in exultations.
That’s what the pool was. Group exultations.
And hilarious stories. You wanna hear some? Here:
There is usually bad music playing. Several times, we had something called the “Hydro-fit mix,” which involved moog synthesizers and sparky drum beats. Don’t ask. Sometimes there’s a dance re-mix of the Beach Boys. Yes, that bad. Sometimes we had the radio. Sometimes Frank Sinatra, who always makes me swoon. But one day, the teacher couldn’t find her cd. So she put one in that was laying near the boom box, perched on the white plastic lawn chair, not knowing what was on it. What was on it? 70s funk. P-funk. George Clinton. Earth Wind and Fire. There were four or five of us under 50 in the front of the pool, and we were cheering at every song. Our teacher, a woman in her forties with four kids, must have missed those years of music. She kept shrugging and jumping up and down. There was a little Kool and the Gang. Early Prince. We started mouthing the words, hoping for “Celebration.”
We started talking about the music of junior high and bad dances and I Love the 70s on VH-1. It was fun.
And then, it came on. “Superfreak.”
We heard the opening notes, Liz and the guy in the Australian hat and Teresa the yoga instructor, and we roared. And then we started singing the first two lines, as loudly as we could, with all enthusiasm blaring: “She’s a very kinky girl. The kind you don’t take home to mother.”
From behind us, we heard all the older folks laughing at us, the entire pool filling with chuckles and guffaws. But we didn’t care. The sun was shining, it was the middle of summer, and we were singing.
“She’s a Superfreak, Superfreak, she’s super freaky, Owwww.”
A few weeks later, Liz filled me in on what I had missed the day before. (School meetings kept me away. Boo.)
“You’re not going to believe this, but the Rolling Stones came on the cd, and Jean started singing along.”
Now, you’d have to see Jean to understand just how hilarious this is, but let me try to show her to you. Jean is in her eighties. She has a wide, wide face, filled with wrinkles, and dark brown eyes that light up when she talks to you. And when she smiles, her entire face folds in on itself, like one of those apple dolls you used to make when you were a kid. She wears an old-fashioned white bathing cap, which covers her wispy white hair. And at her age, she doesn’t give a damn about sunscreen anymore, so she’s tanned the color of mahogany. She also sounds like Carol Channing when she talks: super, super friendly, the sentence pitched up toward the end, and a little slur on the sibilant sounds. Unbelievable. No matter what you say, she smiles and says, “Oh, isn’t that wonderful?” And strangely, she seems to have been everywhere. One day, she and Mary were talking about something. When I swam up, I heard her say, “You know, I really like Bali, but I much preferred Fiji.” And a few days later, someone said, “I’d like to go to Malaysia someday.”
Jean immediately and enthusiastically jumped in, “Oh, isn’t the aiport at Kuala Lumpur beautiful?”
But she also has the sweetest face, a vast naivete, and an enduring child-like quality you just have to love.
So when Liz told me Jean had been singing to the Rolling Stones, I couldn’t believe it. But sometime later, when we were doing arm exercises with our buoys, “Satisfaction” came on. Liz and I, ever the loud troublemakers, started singing along. And then she nudged me. “Look! Look!”
And there was Jean in the corner, her smile wide, mouthing all the words. “I can’t get no.…satisfaction.”
Life will never cease to surprise me.
I’ll miss it—all that camaraderie, the bobbing, the talk of lunch that day. I’ll miss it the way I’ll miss the summer: knowing it will come back.
So yesterday, the pool folks turned on the giant corkscrew slide for us, as a way to celebrate the end. And many of us went down it, again and again, plunging into that water. Including a large older woman, with snow white hair, a pink bathing suit, and cat-eye sunglasses from the 50s, who squealed with delight the entire way down.
And then we had a party. Two plastic tables worth of food. We had cake and guacamole and salad and tofu noodle concoction. We laughed and sat on the plastic chairs, the water drying on our legs. I brought homemade hummus and rice crackers, assuming it would be the only food I could eat. I set it down on the table, amidst the gooey chocolate cakes, and the gorgeous salad with blue cheese (which meant I couldn’t eat it). I was set to nibble on my crackers, talk for awhile, and then go home for more food.
And then I spotted this torte. Dense and gorgeous, ringed with almonds around the edge, it looked so damned enticing. Most cakes just don’t interest me anymore. Something has switched off in my brain, so that traditional baked goods don’t tempt me. I looked up, almost in desperation, and said, “Does anyone know what’s in this?”
A lovely woman, in her 60s, with a soft accent, said, “It’s almond meal, buttter, vanilla, sugar. And the icing is confectioners sugar , butter, and lemon.”
“There’s no flour in it?!” I spluttered.
“That’s right. It’s a flourless torte.”
I plunged the serving knife into it so fast that I could have knocked it off the table. Imagine my utter delight to find that the most beautiful treat on the table was actually gluten-free. I bit into the tiny sliver I had taken and closed my eyes with pleasure. Sweet, but not too much so. Solid with almond taste, it melted on my tongue. And the lemon in the icing tasted so pure, a wonderful complement to the almonds.
“What is this?” I asked her, when I was done eating.
“Weissenburg torte.” It turns out that she is Swiss, and she has been making this cake, like her mother and grandmother before her, for decades. It originated in Switzerland, in the spa town of Weissenburg, and it’s her grandson’s favorite cake. It’s also a favorite of Casey’s, who regularly comes to the pool, has celiac like me, and cannot cook for herself because of a bad head injury. So Annamarie made it specially for Casey, who could not be there yesterday. It turns out she had made it specially for me instead.
I wish I had the exact recipe to share. I’ve been scouring online all morning, hoping to find it. Maybe no one ever wrote it down. This is the closest I could find. (And if anyone out there reading knows it, PLEASE send it along to me, and I’ll post it.) But it couldn’t be too hard to make. Here in the States, almond meal is available almost everywhere, and Trader Joe’s sells it cheap. It’s also super-easy to make—just toss almonds into the food processor and pulse a few times. There you have it.
For me, finding that flourless torte by the pool was a little gift, a small sweetness, the last splash of summer.
Since I can’t find the exact recipe for Weissenburg torte (and I have to wait until next summer to see Annamarie), I humbly offer another way to use almonds in your life. This weekend, I made almond butter from scratch. It was, invariably, another one of those foods that seemed impossible before, and now I realize it took ten minutes to make and tastes great:
2 cups of almonds (watch out for dry-roast almonds, celiacs. They can often be coated in flour. Check out your source.)
1 teaspoon of salt
vegetable oil (I used canola)
a touch of honey (I recommend the chestnut honey from Tuscany)
° Throw the almonds into your trusty food processor. Pulse a few times until they have all become crumbly and dense. (At this point, you have almond flour.)
°Add the salt and keep it all whirring. The almonds should start to stick together here.
°While the food processor is running, slowly drizzle in the vegetable oil, until the entire mixture binds together to form butter.
°If you’d like a decadent taste, splash in a little high-quality honey with the oil. The taste will echo in your mind for hours.