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.
RECIPE FOR ITALIAN WEDDING COOKIES
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup white sugar
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!).