(by Aimee Lee Ball)
The summer that I was four, I was introduced to the rocky Wissahickon Creek, a tributary of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, as part of the swimming classes taught by a local high school coach named Bess Lightcap.
The fact that these lessons were my mother’s idea strikes me as highly improbable because, as the only child of an older mother, I was mostly cosseted and “protected” from anything that Mom deemed might endanger me. (I learned how to ride a bike by going back and forth, longer and longer distances, between my dad and our next-door neighbor, on the street in front of our house, while my mother stood in the doorway with her hands over her eyes.) Also, I don’t think I ever saw my mother swim.
Wikipedia (which didn’t exist during my childhood) tells me that the name of the creek derives from an indigenous American language meaning “stream of yellowish color.” I don’t want to think about that too closely, and I have mixed memories of the coach, a tiny wizened wisp of a woman with a ferocious attitude.
I’m grateful for those lessons; I became a real water baby, and it’s useful in life to feel confident in open water—only the strongest riptide will keep me out of the ocean in summer, and my main form of physical fitness is swimming laps a few times a week. (A doctor once told me that if you're not stopping and you're not drowning, you're swimming aerobically, so even though I am the furthest thing from an athlete, I have the resting pulse of Roger Federer.) But the lessons introduced an old wives tale that was an enduring part of my childhood: My mother believed that you had to wait for an hour after eating before you could swim.
Some flexibility was permitted: For a peach eaten out of hand, juices dripping down my chin, the wait was only 20 minutes. A tuna sandwich required 45 minutes. But if lunch was a hot dog, I would surely drown unless waiting the full hour. This rule applied to all forms of water exposure—creek, lake, or pool.
There were no regulations about eating after my swimming lessons, when we might stop for fried clams (we called them fried rubber bands) and ice cream cones at Howard Johnson’s, or I might pick up a stick in the park around the creek and toast marshmallows over the stove when we got home, to be paired with chocolate bars and graham crackers for s’mores. (Actual campfires were frowned upon in the Philadelphia suburbs.) Best of all were Mom’s fabulous fried green tomatoes, eaten off paper plates in our backyard. There was not a Southern bone in her body, but somehow she had the knack for this Dixie classic. (And somehow there was no fear of frying in my childhood.)
In adulthood, I abandoned all rules about waiting to swim after eating; I've been known to stop for a cheese Danish on my way to the pool. I sometimes recreate the treats that I associate with childhood summers, BC or AC (Before Creek or After Creek), but nothing will ever taste as good as it did under a striped awning, in a still-damp bathing suit, flush with the accomplishment of conquering the Wissahickon, and with Mom.
Fried Green Tomatoes
1 lb. firm green tomatoes, sliced 1/2 inch thick
1/2 c. flour
1/2 c. cornmeal
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 c. vegetable oil
salt and pepper to taste
Place tomato slices on paper towels, sprinkle with salt, and let stand for 1/2 hour.
Mix together flour and cornmeal.
Dip tomatoes in flour-cornmeal mixture, and shake off excess.
Dip in egg and then flour/cornmeal mixture again, shaking off excess.
Heat vegetable oil in a skillet over medium heat, and fry on both sides until golden brown.
Drain on paper towels, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.