In Water Signs as in life, regional foods were an integral enhancement to every celebration and sporting event. My mom was the party planner extraordinaire, the hostess with the mostess — the family organizer and Philly sports fanatic who would create well-thought-out or impromptu gatherings centering around every milestone. Whether it was a First Holy Communion, the Flyers in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Phillies in the World Series or the Eagles confronting an NFC Division rival, Mom made sure there was plenty of great food to complement the occasion.
Good thing too, because as anyone who’s been a lifelong Philly sports fan can attest, more often than not, the food is the only thing left to celebrate after the clock runs out. A certain January in 1981 comes to mind when — off of the high of beating the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game (an event I was lucky enough to attend in person with brother Paul and sister Carolyn…brrr!), the Eagles completely collapsed under pressure, losing to the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XV, 27-10. The 1981 NFC Championship that preceded the Super Bowl letdown is recounted in vivid detail by Maddy during a scene in which she and Ken have dinner with her mother and Aunt Maria in Ocean City, New Jersey.
In Chapter Six, Ken and Maddy share a picnic on the beach featuring Italian wedding cookies, provolone cheese from South Philly and tomato pie — all of which are popular delicacies in the Southeastern PA/Philly/South Jersey area. Every Christmas, my mom used to drive down to the 9th Street Market in South Philly specifically to buy provolone, along with other things not typically done as well in the suburbs. Sometimes this entailed standing in line for hours, but in the end, it was so worth it when said provolone was accompanied by roasted peppers and fresh Italian bread (yum!) as a prelude to a fabulous meal. Now, that’s what I call Italian soul food!
Last September, I was invited to speak at the Hawthorne Writers Group by my good friend, Don Smith. After some collaboration about the event, we decided it would be fun to include a few of the foods mentioned in Water Signs as refreshments. At the time, I was visiting my parents in Newtown Square, PA so baking the Italian wedding cookies was an easy proposition. However, I felt it would be best to actually purchase tomato pie somewhere in and around Hawthorne (which is located just 22 miles from Manhattan in North Jersey), rather than schlep it in the car for the 2 1/2 hour ride. It never occurred to me that this delicious variation of pizza had not yet been discovered in Central and/or Northern New Jersey.
But when I went online to find some bakeries and pizza places in the Hawthorne area and began to make calls, you might have thought I was inquiring about some obscure, exotic foodstuff known only to a select group of elite chefs. Most of my conversations went something like this:
“Hello, do you have tomato pie?”
“Uh, what? Tomato pie? Never heard of it. What’s that?”
“Well, it’s kind of like pizza, except it has a special kind of dough with tomato sauce and grated cheese sprinkled on top.”
“Uh, no we don’t have that, but we do have the best New Yawk style pizza around!”
“No, I am looking for tomato pie, not New York style pizza.”
“Sorry lady, can’t help you!”
In the end, I ordered two tomato pies from Genuardi’s Supermarket, which I managed to keep fresh and uneaten during the trek north. And both the wedding cookies and the tomato pies were a big hit with the crowd — almost as big a hit as Wilbert Montgomery’s touchdown run against the Dallas Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship Game.