Friends and strangers: Amish friendship bread

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For my two sisters and me, summers in small-town Nebraska meant swimming at the local pool. After obligatory Morning Bible School, we were sent off to swimming lessons. We walked home for lunch, then back to the pool (in time for Muth’s afternoon nap) for open swim—crowds of kids, a few sun-bathing moms, and one life guard. The boys cannonballed on top of the girls being Esther Williams, performing underwater ballet, or shrieking in the shallow end. Pubescent boys, too cool to get their hair wet, sat on the diving boards, smoked behind the snack bar, and pulled squealing teenage girls off their towels into the deep end. It was pretty much Lord of the Flies anarchy, every kid for themselves. 

After three or four hours in the pool, we walked home barefoot sharing a Popsicle, eyes foggy, seeing rainbows from the heavily chlorinated water. By the end of the summer, the soles of our feet were calloused and tough as cowhide, our skin was dark brown from all the hours spent without the burden of sunscreen, and our hair was bleached greenish-yellow from the sun and the pool water.

Fast forward sixty-four summers—every morning I nod to large, black man reading the newspaper in the window, present my card at the counter to be swiped, and head for the locker room. I greet naked women either getting dressed or undressed, chat a minute with soon-to-be well-dressed woman who drives a Jaguar, and try to avoid hyper-girl who always wears pink, talks to herself in a loud voice, leaves drifts of powder on the floor, and gets upset if you stand too close. I swim laps at the adult-only downtown Y in a salt-water pool, hair tucked into a silicon cap, eyes protected with goggles, “NO JUMPING, RUNNING, OR DIVING”, listening to music courtesy of waterproof earphones. 

My pool

Washington D.C. Hyatt

Houston L.A. Fitness

Santa Barbara Municipal Pool

Nine or ten people who mirror my morning routine have become my pool peeps. Here are a few of their stories.

Teri: her husband is a “prominent lawyer” who recently dislocated his shoulder rock climbing, they own “a lot of rental property,” vacation in Hawaii, have a 30 year old daughter who recently “sold her condo for loads of money” and moved home—Teri shares her life stories easily. Don’t share a lane with her, she swings her arm out to the side as she strokes. 

Joni: has a beautiful, swift stroke, wears a red bathing suit, and once asked me to take a picture of the tattoo on her back. She said that it was the anniversary of the day she was diagnosed with melanoma. After surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, her oncologist declared her to be “cancer free.” She had the spot tattooed so that she would remember to be thankful for each day.

Heavyset, hairy, bearded man who wears a blue swim cap: has a powerful, if choppy, stroke and goes forever. Don’t share a lane with him thinking that he will get out anytime soon.

Otter boy: wears a long-legged, blue and yellow striped, spandex Speedo, does a strange, limp-wristed backstroke—the only one in the pool I can consistently beat. 

Older Asian man with one leg: wheels himself into the pool, parks along an outside lane, removes his right leg, sets it neatly out of the way, scooches himself out of his wheelchair onto the pool edge, and slides in—amazingly fast, usually beats me.

Traci: deeply tanned, having a yard sale this weekend, has been moving to Massachusetts to live with her son since last October, has a cute figure, and does violent water aerobics in the far right lane (When I see her while I’m swimming underwater, she reminds me of a pony).

My favorite, Connie: 80ish, retired minister with a smooth elegant stroke, prays while he swims, used to go 50 laps without stopping. After eight months of absence, he recently returned—colon cancer, chemo, radiation, and exhaustion. Back in the pool between treatments, happy for each day he can swim, thankful for his family and his doctors, grateful for health insurance, always cheerful, pleasant, and glad to see me.

My sense of community comes from familiar strangers: my pool peeps, the people I chat with regularly in the courtyard, the shoppers and checkers I see at the neighborhood grocery store, the jogger that passes the Sweetie each morning on his walk, the big, grey cat that comes out from the bushes to greet him, our mail carrier, born in Fargo, who just came back from a trip to North Dakota, the lady at the dry cleaner who fixes sweater holes, zipper pulls, and comforter tears. I’ll miss them all.

Amish Friendship Bread 

Put starter (this is the hard part—finding some starter) in plastic bowl with a lid (do not use metal bowl). Do not refrigerate.

Day 1: Do Nothing

Day 2, 3, 4: Stir with wooden spoon 

Day 5: Add—1 c. flour, 1 c. sugar, 1 c. milk. Day 6, 7, 8, 9: Stir with a wooden spoon. Day 10: Add: 1 c. flour, 1 c. sugar, 1 c. milk 

On day 10, make the bread. First, after adding the below ingredients, pour off three one-cup starters. Keep one for yourself and give the other two to friends. Pour remaining batter into a large bowl and add the following:

  • 2/3 c. oil
  • 2 c. flour
  • 2/3 c. sugar
  • 1 large box instant vanilla pudding
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 1⁄2 t. baking powder
  • 1 t. cinnamon
  • 1⁄2 c. milk
  • 1⁄2 t. salt
  • 1⁄2 t. baking soda 
  • 1 c. nuts
  • 1 t. vanilla

Mix well, pour into two well-oiled large loaf pans. Bake at 350 for 45-60 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes and remove from pan. Add more or less cinnamon to taste, nutmeg, cardamom, allspice, nuts, raisins, currants, dates, chopped prunes, or apricots if desired. Freezes well. 

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3 Responses to Friends and strangers: Amish friendship bread

  1. Bob Allen says:

    New friends and strangers lie ahead so no not dispair over lost souls, there are many in our life that will come forward in a short time. Only 4 months or 5 and then who knows, maybe many more friends from strangers. Love you.

  2. Therese says:

    I have not made friendship bread in years! I always shared it among our picking circle back in my college days. Have not seen that around for a while. Thanks for bringing back “the good old days”! Good luck with the move. Can’t wait to see your new place and hear all the stories about your new friends.

  3. Tom H. says:

    Your pool musings remind me of a like appreciation of my locker room friends and pool rats with whom I’ve spent hours in the same water some dating back to 1980 or so.
    Just saw one yesterday who’s going to the Masters nationals in Minneapolis to compete in the 45-54 year old category. His a lawyer with a good sense of humor and we share interest in fast cars. He told me the story of his daughter, who decided she wasn’t ready for college so joined the Marines and just finished advanced infantry training at Parris Island!

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