Thursday, August 13, 2015

sweet, sour, salty, bitter

We went to the shore of the North Sea, to Stonehaven. My daughter has been telling me about the open air seawater pool there for awhile, which seemed to me to be a fulfillment of a dream that I didn't know I even had. I remember learning to swim when I was a child. I learned in the pools at the Officers Club of the Air Force Bases we lived on, at Edwards AFB and then in Japan, at Yokota. I had a yellow patch sewn onto my swimming suit that indicated I was bona fide for deep end action and the diving board.

The thing I love the most about being in the water? The way my legs float up when I lean back into the water. The way I feel buoyant.

For a few years I swam laps at a pool in Kearns. The thing I loved most about swimming laps? The way I put my head in the water, goggles affixed, and swam and swam without speaking to anyone, focused only on my stroke and the specific number of the lap I was currently doing, and where it fit into the overall scheme of a mile. It felt pure.

Going to a pool--especially going to a pool with a lot of people, some of whom are children--is a logistical feat. Everyone has to have all their gear. My daughter was the commander of our operation, and a fine one she was. We got to the pool, put our clothes in her bag, put that bag into a locker, took our towels out, and got into the pool. The North Sea, in case you are unaware, is cold. As in: COLD. But this pool is heated. It's heated seawater. Salty. It felt extra buoyant to me. I felt a surge of elation--'elation' is not too strong a word.

I swam a few laps, not too strenuous, and played with the kids, and swam a little more. The air outside the pool was brisk. It was sunny, and warm-ish, but not warm, precisely. The pool was full of families, everyone having a fine time. One dad had his probably five month old baby, wearing an armament of a floatie suit. The baby looked serious. The dad was full of joy. We all beamed at each other. I swam a couple more laps.

When we were done, there was the business of getting out into that air, bustling back to the locker room and showering off some of the salt, then getting into our clothes. It's this bit that can make going swimming feel like an ordeal in real life. You have to have a system. But on vacation, where ordeals can rather magically turn into fun, it was great. Was I hurrying anywhere? No. Did I have a meeting to attend? Not at all. Did I, therefore, need to think about how I would present myself? Nope. All I had to do was have clothes on so we could go buy ice cream.

We all got cones with all the toppings, which were: chocolate flake; little flat biscuit; little tubular biscuit; chocolate buttons with nonpareils on them; a heart shaped jelly. This, it turns out, is too many toppings, in my opinion, because they interfere with the actual ice cream eating. However, the toppings make an ice cream cone into a whole party. I parceled out all of my toppings, except the cookies, to the children, who were glad to have them. We ate the ice cream in the sun, with the ocean in view, and sea gulls crying overhead.

When we got home, we launched rather immediately into preparations for dinner. I mashed up a Jamie Oliver recipe for pho with this vegetarian one, with smashing results. I made perhaps my best tofu ever by first pressing the tofu to get rid of some of the water, then slicing it really, really thin, then filming a very hot pan with alittle sesame oil, placing the tofu in the pan in a single layer, putting a little brined garlic on top, and soy sauce, then cooking till any residual liquid was gone, or nearly; I turned each piece carefully, so that both sides got toasted so that it would all have that toasted, chewy, slightly crunchy texture. It was perfect. My favorite thing about preparing this soup? The charring of a halved onion and bit of ginger, and the dry roasting of star anise, clove, and cinnamon stick. The slicing of the red chilis, green onion, mushroom. The heaping of the mint and cilantro.

The fifth flavor, according to taste science, is umami--sometimes translated as 'pleasant savory taste.' It's separate from salt, sour, bitter, and sweet, but works in harmony with all of them. I'm thinking of the salt still on my skin. The memory of swimming in the afternoon, but also earlier, from my past. The pleasure of doing and seeing so many new things. The melting cream, the wheeling birds, the surge of water. The bite of chilis, the sting of mint. At night, after everything, going out to watch stars falling and falling from the sky.


we all scream for ice cream!


this pho was beyond.


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