Tag Archives: Italian wedding cookies

The Food of Water Signs: Italian Wedding Cookies

I thought it would be fun to take a break from some of the heavier themes and plot points to focus in on another aspect of Water Signs — the various foods specifically mentioned, especially in Part One, to help evoke the culture and atmosphere of the Philly/suburban Philly/South Jersey area.

When I wrote about the literary techniques employed, I noted:

As part of bringing regional culture and tradition to both a new and familiar audience, much of the activity in Water Signs revolves around popular foods and delicacies. Maddy and Ken’s beach picnic, for example, features provolone cheese from South Philly, homemade Italian wedding cookies and “tomato pie” (a special pizza-like creation first introduced to the area by a South Philly bakery in the 1900s).

This beach picnic takes place in Chapter 6 in Ventnor, New Jersey where Ken, having determined previously Madeline’s weakness for the popular regional treat, presents her with a homemade tray of Italian wedding cookies, prepared by his roommate from South Philly (who, by the way is a fictional creation):

“Hey,” he warned seriously, “No starvation tactics tonight. You and I are both going to enjoy this good food—no apologies. Oh, and you have to have some wedding cookies. Kathy made those especially for you.”

“She did? How’d she know they’re my favorite?”

“Cause I told her,” he shrugged. “After that, I asked for her advice about how to go about winning the heart of the most beautiful Italian girl I’ve ever met—a girl I almost blew it with that night at Key Largo when I was incredibly stupid and bought a rose for her friend instead of her.” Maddy laughed at the memory.

“And she suggested wedding cookies?” she teased, raising an eyebrow. She gazed at him with her mesmerizing brown eyes, and he felt as if he would shatter into a million pieces.

“She said it was a good place to start, considering they were on your Top-10 list,” he smiled. “And she makes the best, believe me.”

“Hmmm, well I think my Aunt Maria might take issue with that,” Maddy stated. “Still, those do look pretty good,” she admitted, eying the full plate of the familiar twisted knots covered with white icing and multi-colored sprinkles.

Although in real life it was my Great Aunt Emma who was most famous for her baking and cooking, since Aunt Maria plays such a prominent role in this part of the story, I attributed this quality to her (and yes, she was a great cook, too).

The next morning, as they sit around the breakfast table, Maddy, Aunt Maria and Mom enjoy the homemade cookies with their coffee — another element of real life brought into the story. In my family, Italian wedding cookies typically showed up during special occasions like graduations and bridal showers, and on holidays like Christmas. And while they are delicious any time of the day, I remember enjoying them most in the morning, with a hot cup of happiness (as my friend Ava calls it).

Funny, we never actually referred to them as wedding cookies growing up; in fact, I used to call them “coffee dunkers” or when I was very young, “the cookies with the sprinkles on them”. I don’t think I discovered the proper name “wedding cookie” until many years later.

Finally, although I describe them in the book as “twisted knots” (normally how they are fashioned), I prefer to just roll mine into round balls, not being known for my endless reservoirs of patience when it comes to baking. Come to think of it, Aunt Em used to make hers that way, too. Unlike her, I prefer to use either lemon extract or vanilla extract as opposed to anise — a flavor I don’t much like.

But whatever you name them, however you shape them and whatever extract you choose to add to the mix, call them delicious! Enjoy. :)

Pictured: Maddy's favorite cookies, in a rounded Christmas-themed incarnation.

RECIPE FOR ITALIAN WEDDING COOKIES

1/2 cup butter, softened

1/2 cup white sugar

3 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla OR lemon extract

3 cups all-purpose flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease cookie sheets.

In large bowl, cream together butter & sugar until smooth. Mix in the egg & vanilla. Combine the flour & baking powder; stir into the creamed mixture until blended. Divide dough into walnut-sized portions. Roll each piece into a ball and place inches apart on prepared cookie sheets. Bake for 8-10 minutes in the preheated oven, until firm & golden at the edges.

Icing: Mix together confectioners sugar with half & half in a bowl, making sure the mixture isn’t too thin. After the cookies cool, drizzle icing on top and sprinkle with jimmies (that’s what we called them in Philly…lol!).

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Literary Techniques Used In Water Signs

Taking a digression from the discussion of the themes of Water Signs, I wanted to share some of the literary techniques I employed to help bring the story to life. As someone who believes good fiction should engage the reader to the point where he or she loses all concept of space and time, it was important to me that my book have the same all-consuming effect. Thus, I used several different techniques to create a “mental vacation” for the reader and underscore the points I was trying to make through plot and characters.

So here they are, in no particular order:

Italics – A significant factor in Madeline’s personal development is learning how to effectively confront people and circumstances when warranted. Throughout most of the novel, this is a daunting challenge for her. To denote this element of her personality and allow readers a window into her real thoughts and motivations, I employed italics. One of the most dramatic examples occurs in Chapter 19, when Ken forthrightly asks her how the news of his engagement makes her feel. Unlike Ken, readers get the truthful answer, immediately followed by her articulation of a lie she deems honorable and necessary under the circumstances:

How the hell do you think I feel Kenny? You were the one calling and crying on the phone for nearly two years about how much you loved me and missed me; the one who practically begged me to move here in the first place; and the one who kept your live-in girlfriend a secret until there was no turning back! How the hell do you think I feel after uprooting my entire life, hurting my family and having to face the consequences of a misinformed decision alone? How could you deceive me like that? Is this some sort of payback for hurting you?

“Hey, I think it’s great!” she replied brightly. “Congratulations! I’ve been dating a lot myself since I got here. Believe me; I have my own things going on!”

Look for this technique throughout the novel.

MusicWater Signs spans sixteen years in the lives of its two main characters — 1992-2008. In order to help readers identify with the changing time period throughout the story, and relate more deeply to Ken and Madeline’s world, particular songs and artists are mentioned. Some of these were chosen specifically for their relevance to real life, while others either fit the narrative at a particular juncture perfectly, or reflect the characters’ Philly-area roots.

For example, in Chapter One, Ken and Maddy’s first slow dance takes place to Elton John’s The One, which debuted during the summer of 1992 and immediately became one of my favorites.

In Chapter Three, as the two characters are driving to Atlantic City — site of their first official date — in Ken’s black Acura (another detail taken from real life), Maddy asks him to stop switching the radio dials when Jon Secada’s Just Another Day starts blaring through the speakers. That’s also a page (no pun intended) out of real life, with the song being a 1992 hit with both the characters and their living, breathing counterparts.

In Chapter 23, Madeline performs her own unique rendition of the song, On My Own, from Les Miserables, for her dance studio’s local production. As I’ve mentioned before, singing beautifully and powerfully was something I’ve always wished I could do, but alas was not in God’s plan for me. Thus I took some creative license as an author and infused the character based on me with that very talent. I chose this particular song for two reasons: 1.) to dramatically underscore the melancholy circumstances of Madeline’s life at this point in the book; and 2.) to pay homage to my very favorite Broadway show.  However, like Madeline I am also a ballroom dancer, and I did participate in a Fred Astaire showcase in Boca Raton, as part of a group tango!

In Chapter 30, The Spinners’ Then Came You, not only retells the love story between the two main characters, but also recalls their native metropolitan Philadelphia origins.

Sports – In Water Signs as in real life, professional sports play a significant role. When crafting the novel, I endeavored to recreate the culture of the Philadelphia/South Jersey area (site of Part One) and South Florida (site of Part Two) via the incorporation of real-life sporting events. Much of this occurs as a remembrance uttered by a character over a breakfast or dinner conversation, such as when Maddy relates her experience as a young teenager at the 1980 World Series, and at the 1981 NFC Championship Game when her beloved Eagles beat the Cowboys, 20-7. Both of these are an example of art imitating life, as is Dr. Rose’s passionate devotion to the Phillies.

Food – As part of bringing regional culture and tradition to both a new and familiar audience, much of the activity in Water Signs revolves around popular foods and delicacies. Maddy and Ken’s beach picnic, for example, features provolone cheese from South Philly, homemade Italian wedding cookies and “tomato pie” (a special pizza-like creation first introduced to the area by a South Philly bakery in the 1900s).

Humorous Side Note: When I spoke at the Hawthorne Writers Group last fall in North Jersey (about 20 miles from Manhattan), I thought it would be fun to bring wedding cookies (baked by yours truly) and tomato pie. Although I knew the latter was mainly found in South Jersey, I’d assumed it had finally made its way north, for the simple fact that it is absolutely scrumptious. After several fruitless calls to North Jersey bakeries and pizza shops,  I realized the Philly-area delicacy was nowhere to be found anywhere north of Trenton. So I ordered it from a local suburban place near my parents’ home and transported it by car. Thankfully, it survived the 2 1/2 hour trek unscathed (and uneaten). :)

Technology – One of the most enjoyable aspects of tracing the progression from 1992 to 2008 was referencing the various technology used by my characters. When the story opens, “car phones” are the latest rage, as evidenced by an excited Lori happily showing off the one that came with her brand-new Pontiac Bonneville (an actual event borrowed from reality) to her younger sister and her new beau. As the plot progresses, Madeline notes the heretofore unknown and excessive use of cell phones and pagers in South Florida (circa 1995). By the time we arrive near the end of the first decade of the new millennium, she is employed as a content manager for a company that specializes in online marketing for the hospitality industry, a fictional career based on the fact that I did indeed work as a content writer for a Boca Raton-based company, creating e-proposals for major hotel chains.

JuxtapositionWater Signs is about the journey, not the destination. Therefore, readers know the ending from the moment they read the prologue, demanding a compelling narrative on the part of the author to keep them turning the pages. In addition to the other methods mentioned, the use of juxtaposition was a great help in building suspense, beginning in Chapter One. It opens with Madeline and Carmen crossing the Walt Whitman Bridge and then speeding down the Atlantic City Expressway, their conversation informing readers of their backgrounds, motivations and plans for the evening ahead. Before long, the chapter shifts to a back-and-forth narrative that alternates between the girls’ arrival at the club to Kenny’s reluctant preparation in front of the mirror for a night of drinking and dancing (which also serves as his initial introduction to readers). This technique continues throughout the novel, with most chapters picking right up where the previous one left off.

Branding – Another method through which the culture and traditions of Philly, South Jersey and South Florida come alive for readers is branding. In Part One, I make several references to familiar retail chains and brands throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania and the Jersey Shore including Wawa convenience stores, Tastykake commercial baked goods; water ice (known to the rest of the country as flavored Italian ices); soft pretzels, Herr’s potato chips and Turkey Hill ice cream. In Part Two, Maddy gets stood up by the character of Mark Donnelly, who was supposed to take her to Sunfest (an unfortunate incident taken from my own experience AND an annual festival held in West Palm Beach); several chapters later, she and Ken reunite over lunch at The Samba Room, a popular restaurant chain in South Florida.

Side Note: I did once work in downtown Fort Lauderdale, where I also shared a few lunches with former co-workers at this particular Samba Room location, thus the inspiration for using it as the setting for Madeline and Ken’s long-awaited meeting.

Water Imagery – Aside from obviously paying homage to the book’s title, the use of water imagery also evokes a dream-like quality within the narrative, and supports the interwoven concepts of renewal and reconciliation. On a basic level, the coastal locations of the story, the characters’ shared Pisces sign and Ken’s US Navy service contribute to Water Signs’ “escapist” quality, conjuring up images of beach-inspired beauty, majestic ocean waves, colorful fish swimming beneath the sea’s surface and American heroes serving their country on awe-inspiring aircraft carriers.

But on a much deeper level, water is a symbol of rebirth in traditional religious customs and spiritual practices. It is also a symbol of the emotions, which play a significant role in character development, particularly for Maddy. She suffers for years with panic and anxiety disorder — a gross distortion of the emotions that negatively impacts the physical body — without actually knowing what it is — until she reads the packaging for the medication prescribed by her doctor. Prior to her unusual cure by a psychic, the only time she finds relief from her sometimes frightening symptoms is when she’s immersed in water, whether swimming in a pool, riding a wave in the ocean or standing under the pulsating refreshment of a hot shower.

Ken, although not a co-sufferer with this affliction, often heads to the beach or to the Deerfield Fishing Pier when life seems overwhelming. In Part Two, when rocked by Maddy’s unexpected arrival in Florida — blissfully unaware of his engagement to another woman — the pier is his destination of choice when he seeks his mother’s counsel in person.

Side Note: When I first moved to Florida, I’d often go to this pier for my own consolation, which is why it is also the setting for Maddy’s date with Mark (another fact turned into fiction). Today, I still visit there frequently as this section of Deerfield Beach also boasts plenty of retail and mom-and-pop stores and restaurants, as well as a beautiful, two-mile sidewalk along the beach.

More to come in another post!

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