Pommes and the Swimming Pool

John Holten is currently writer in residence at Tropez, a space for art inside the public pool Sommerbad Humboldthain initiated by Nele Heinevetter. Here, he tells of his first experiences in making Pommes, the German version of french fries – and a key ingredient to a day at the pool.

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You try to understand a place and wonder: do I know the history of these people by how they behave naked? The ritual of recreational swimming takes many guises, and as this series of articles shows and the wider activities of the Contemporary Food Lab, the ritual of food and eating likewise takes on as many forms and guises as there are people on the planet. Put recreational swimming and the ritual of food both together, and well,  surely it must also reveal something deeper and more profound. Possibly, or it just tells you that it is summertime.

In Germany there is the distinct combination of pommes and pooltime – the summer rolls around and finally Berlin is not the dark, cold city of uniform streets and underground bahnhofs, hurried walks through snow to overly insulated workplaces, smoky bars, stifled yoga dens: it’s a breezy trip to your nearest outdoor swimming pool! Wedding, Berlin, hosts the Sommerbad Humboldthain: a public swimming pool that is treelined with deep lush city forest, in the lee of the Flakturm and settled back from the ring bahn, it can feel more like a lake, a glacial tarn as it were, an oasis for the good people of north Berlin to flock to and get their cool on.

Now, as someone forever trying to better understand the country I find myself in, getting to grips with the pommes at the pool and the attendant kiosk ritual is relatively easy. Simply hang out, eat pommes, serve pommes. Before I join the fray – see what I did there, I almost said fry (lord, the heat must be getting to me) – I talk with a few Germans about pommes at the pool and everyone agrees its an integral part of visiting a swimming pool. The few times I’ve gone to an outdoor swimming pool, I don’t think I ever paid any attention to the kiosk if I’m honest. Just another a failure of cultural integration I guess.

I find myself on one of those extremely sunny Sundays of June when there is literally nothing else to do other than go to the nearby swimming pool. It’s easily climbing into the high 20s and when I get to Tropez, the pool’s kiosk that has been turned into an art and culture centre, there is already a long queue forming in front of the pommes window. Tropez is a wonderful, attenuated swimming pool fixture: you have the eis and drinks kiosk and the pommes and wurst window, two sliding glass window vitrines through which cheerful and constantly occupied staff serve the expectant visitors. Such a fixture is taken for granted in an easy, summery kind of way but perhaps a little unexpectedly this summer it is also operating as a cultural dynamo, a kind of undercover art centre. Not all that surprising for Berlin, for what part of everyday life does art not infiltrate in this city? The city is there for the eating and we’re all really hungry in the artworld: now where is the pommes?

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Maurizio Cattelan would be proud of this: a patient, docile line – a very long line – of scantily clad, pretty much naked group of all shapes and sizes sweating it out for a portion of fries. But this isn’t art. It’s ritual. Close cousins certainly from an anthropological point of view, yet going to the swimming pool is also a recreational event and as such it is normal that it includes the eating of food, and somewhat greasy, unhealthy food too such as pommes.

Behind the open window I venture and help out the incessant cooking and processing of the naked line of hungry swimmers. It’s hot, but not unbearably so, and it is certainly slick, not with sweat or chlorine tinged water, but rather the oil that is boiling in the four pens of the cooker, trays of pommes submerged in each at various stages of being cooked. The instructions are fairly simple, if not rudimentary: the pommes are put into a plastic bucket from out of their plastic bags, 5 kilo bags which come in cardboard boxes. From this bucket they’re poured into the tray and submerged in the fryer. Their anaemic off white has to turn a kind of golden orange and they start to float to the surface before they can be considered fit for consumption. Then they’re lifted out, the tray is given a quick shake, and they’re dumped into a large metal bowl and liberally seasoned with salt, tossed, and then portioned out onto paper trays, large or small. Then of course the choice is given: ketchup or mayonnaise? Most people opt for both. Berliners call this Schranke, which means gate (namely this type). One teenager also wanted curry powder – a gourmand in the making. For of course, let us not forget the other option on the menu: the stately currywurst, Berlin’s own food creation. These sausages are lightly sliced and thrown into the bubbling fat, when they blister they’re cooked: sliced through into a little collection of meat coins, they’re then covered in ketchup with curry powder talced heavily atop.

I’m writing this and I’d be lying if I said this must be some of the worst food imaginable to eat while naked, sun kissed and exercising through a variety of swimming strokes before stretching out to rest under the dappled shadow of a tree. And yet: it in fact all somehow makes sense. This is what people want, it is exactly what people want, no more, no less, and for most of the afternoon the line for pommes is 30 plus deep, with a waiting time of up to 30 minutes, while next to it the line for eis and drinks stands largely empty.

The last diners take their pommes away as the calls to vacate the pool echo over the still waters from the tannoy system. They gingerly make their way, pinching a French fry precariously, blowing on it before getting it into their mouth. A day at the pool involves a try of fries, to be brought back to your place in the sun, placed on the grass beside your towel and picked at as you dry out after a dip in the pool, in between reading distractedly from your book. It’s a ritual and its fun, and it tastes like summer time: pommes at the pool.

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