Friday, July 29, 2011


I actually do like fish, in spite of my mother's best efforts.  Throughout childhood the only fish "dish" I ever enjoyed was fishsticks, and I use the word "enjoy" very loosely.  It would be more correct to say that I tolerated fishsticks.  My first memory of fish is unpleasant.  My mother had served some unidentifiable white fish that was full of bones.  I remember her admonishment to us kids as we sat at the dinner table:  "Now this fish has bones in it, so make sure you chew it very carefully and spit out all the bones.  If you swallow one, you could DIE."  Nothing can take the fun out of fish more than the thought of one false swallow and you're dead.  I chewed my fish very carefully.  I chewed it until it became a paper-like paste in my mouth.  I carefully removed every tiny bone and placed it in a little pile on my plate. And then, finally, I swallowed it - little by little, just to make sure I hadn't missed any bones the first time around.  It took me ten minutes to finish the tiny piece of fish on my plate. Uncharacteristically, I did not request seconds.  My conclusion from that experience was this: fish are too much work.  Oh, and by the way, they taste like paper.

Another memorable dish my  mother used to serve was salmon patties.  This is a dish that has mercifully fallen by the wayside over the years.  She served these salmon patties with a Heinz product called "Chili Sauce".   As I recall, it was very much like ketchup, only lumpier.  I have no idea how she created these salmon patties, but I assume she purchased canned salmon and added a mixture of milk, eggs and breadcrumbs.  What was particularly loathsome about the patties was the strange tubular bones in the salmon.  I was assured by my mother that these were "OK to eat", but I did not want to eat them.  They had a crunchy texture to them, and although they did  not kill me, they did not make for a very pleasant dining experience.

The first time I had a fish or seafood dish I really enjoyed was on one particularly memorable Easter Sunday.  In our family we had a tradition on Easter.  After church we would go out to eat.  Sometimes the restaurants would be fairly close by, but other times we would take a drive to a restaurant.  This particular Easter we drove down to Key Largo (we were living in Broward County at the time).  We pulled into the parking lot of one of those typical seafood restaurants, with weathered wood siding and pelicans on the pier.  (I could never resist the opportunity to quote poetry, and upon viewing the pelicans I launched into one of my favorite limericks:  "Behold the lowly pelican, his beak can hold more than his belly can.") Upon being ushered into the fine dining room, complete with white tablecloths, red glass candleholders, and various fishnets hanging from the walls, we were all handed large menus containing a multitude of seafood selections.  I read the menu carefully, and read it again.  My eyes lingered on an exotic dish called "shrimp creole".  The price did not seem too exorbitant, so when the waiter came to take our order, I ordered it with confidence, casting a sidelong glance at my parents' faces to make sure I wasn't going too far overboard.  Neither raised an eyebrow.  The dish was served to me in an oblong metal dish, still bubbling from the oven.  Hot pink shrimp were swimming in a rich garlicky, tomatoey broth, with bits of onion and celery floating about for good measure, and the whole concoction was served over a bed of lovely white rice. I had never tasted anything so delicious.  That day marked the dawn of a new era in my life.  I suddenly realized that perhaps there was more to this whole seafood thing than I had ever imagined.  I also realized that if I wanted to explore the finer aspects of fish or seafood that I would have to range beyond my mother's kitchen. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011


I can't think of summertime without thinking of swimming, and I can't think about swimming without remembering the first swimming pool I ever went to, Turner's in Belleville, Ill.  I remember the dressing room at Turner's, smelling strongly of chlorine, jam packed with mothers and their children, the mothers trying to squeeze their daughters into those unforgiving cottom swimsuits, and the daughters squirming with anticipation.  (As I recall, it was even more difficult to remove the swimsuits when wet.  It was a process that required the utmost patience and skill, with the suit acting like a chinese handcuff, squeezing your body harder the more you tugged to remove it.) Inside the dressing room was a cacaphony of conversations punctuated by the sounds coming in from outside - the slap of a diving board, the splashing of water, the chorus of children's shouts and laughter. I was never happy about the floor at Turner's.  It was wet and littered with bobby pins, used band-aids, and sopping lumps of toilet paper.  I cringed at having to walk across it barefoot (even as a young child, I was very fastidious about certain things).  But that was a small price to pay for the sheer pleasure of what awaited beyond that gauntlet. There was nothing about the pool I didn't like.  Just being in the water was heaven to me, even when I got splashed by the big kids and got a noseful of pool water.

Today the building that was Turner's is on the Top 10 list of endangered historic structures in the State of Illinois.  The two links below state that the structure was built in 1923, and that the name "Turner's" was actually an anglicized version of "Turnverein", a German gym and social center that at one time was one of the largest of its kind in the country. The building was designed by an associate of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and is architecturally significant for its Art Deco style.  I have absolutely no recollection of the building displayed in any of the pictures; I believe the outdoor pool was behind the main structure and on a lower level. The memories that I do have, however, are some of the fondest memories of my early childhood. They speak to me of summertime and endless days and happiness.