Monday, August 16, 2010

The Food of Water Signs: Regional Brands

In attempting to evoke a palpable experience of the culture and atmosphere of the Philly, Southeastern Pennsylvania, and South Jersey areas, I purposely peppered Part One of Water Signs with references to popular brands enjoyed by residents of the Delaware Valley. Complemented by the addition of ethnic favorites like Italian wedding cookies, provolone cheese and tomato pie, this was highly effective in drawing readers into Ken and Maddy's world.

In Chapter 9, Maddy tends to a recuperating Ken, who has injured his leg in a work accident (something that did happen in real life, although many of the events of this chapter have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes). It's here where I first introduce readers to some Philly-area favorites:

“Thank you, sweetheart!”

Ken had awakened to find Madeline busily setting up a tray table with a turkey and cheese hoagie from Wawa, a pickle and a bag of Herr’s potato chips. He looked adorably groggy as he rubbed his eyes and sat up on the couch.

“Damn!” He laughed. “How long have I been out? And what smells so good?”

Placing the tray in front of him, Maddy smiled. “Hmm, well I’d say at least an hour and a half, to answer your first question. As for the second, I am attempting to make my Mom’s mussels marinara sauce for you. There’s plenty, so you can have some tonight for dinner and freeze the rest. I’m also leaving you chicken cutlets and a pan of eggplant parm. Wouldn’t want you to starve or anything, just ‘cause you have a bad leg.” Her tone was playful as she unscrewed the lid to a cold bottle of Turkey Hill iced tea.

If there's one thing I really wish we had in South Florida, it is Wawa convenience stores. A cut above similar retail chains like 7-11, Wawa offers fresh homemade soups, salads and sandwiches, as well as various pots of steaming hot flavored and regular coffees, soft pretzels, Tastykakes and other on-the-run refreshment. Oh and yes, in Philly we call them hoagies, not subs.

Lancaster-based Turkey Hill products are also sorely missed. Whenever I go north for a visit, my parents' refrigerator is always stocked with fresh-brewed Turkey Hill iced tea and lemonade, and the freezer with their fabulous ice-cream featuring team flavors for the Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies. As for Herr's potato chips, they've been on the Philly scene for as long as I can remember, just like soft pretzels and another area favorite, water ice (known to the rest of the county as Italian ices), as mentioned in the beginning of Chapter 7:

"Here you go sweetheart,” Ken said with a smile, handing Maddy a small cup of one of her favorite treats—lemon water ice.

“Ooh, it’s even got little pieces of lemon in it, awesome!” she enthused, taking a spoonful into her mouth. They were sitting on a green-painted wooden bench, facing the ocean.

“You know, I really could have splurged on a large, Madeline Rose,” he remarked, giving her a playful nudge. Then, just as she was about to speak, added, “Oh, I know, I know. We have to watch our calories!” He was teasing of course, but Maddy took slight offense.

“Hey, just ‘cause you don’t understand what it was like to be the ‘chubby girl’ in school, don’t make fun of me! I wish I didn’t have to be so careful, but I was never one of those naturally thin girls like Carmen who can eat whatever she wants and not even have to exercise. It’s just the way it is.”

As she spoke, her eyes followed the graceful trail of a seagull as it rode the evening air currents. Ken lodged his plastic spoon back into his slushy cherry flavored concoction, and then turned her shoulders so she was looking squarely at him.

That scene is reminiscent of countless hours spent sitting on a bench on the boardwalk -- either alone or in the company of family and friends -- enjoying a cold water ice while gazing at the ocean. I can picture the seagulls, the waves and the colorful umbrellas dotting the sand even as I type this. It was so easy to place Ken and Maddy into various situations like this, regardless of whether or not the real Ken and I had actually done the same thing back in the day.

In a future post, I will delve into a character study of Madeline, complete with all of her insecurities including excessive worry about her weight, as evidenced in the dialogue above. I'll also take a look at some of the real places that provide the settings for much of the interaction between the characters such as Frisanco's Restaurant (now out of business), Taj Mahal Casino, The Ship Inn, Acapulco Grill (which no longer exists), Arturo's Restaurant and The Boca Resort and Club.

We'll also explore the use of popular music to help keep readers abreast of the current year throughout a long, 16-year journey; the development of technology to denote the progression of time; and more comparisons between fact and fiction.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Food of Water Signs: Provolone Cheese and Tomato Pie

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 6, Ken and Maddy share a picnic on the beach featuring Italian wedding cookies, provolone cheese fromSouth 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. :)

Next Post: Regional brands including Wawa, Tastykake and Herr's.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

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. :)


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!).

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Water Signs: The Seen Versus the Unseen

"Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day." -- 2 Corinthians 4:16

I'd posted a cryptic Twitter update the other day alluding to the fact that I'd received confirmation on the accuracy of my intuition, pertaining to a character in my book. I'd recently written that Erin was mostly a product of my imagination, an embodiment of the theme of the culture of self-absorption, with her obsession with all things material and superficial. Turns out, as I've discovered from a reliable source, I was right on target in my portrayal of her without even realizing it. Of course, the whole LinkedIn incident should have provided a very big clue as to this person's true nature, along with the revealing status updates that inspired a professionalism post.

Sadly it appears that spouses, just like friends, do indeed have the power to change previously upstanding, deep-thinking people for the worse, which seems to be the case here. Either that, or for some strange reason, she wants her husband to come across online as an infantile, immature version of his former self -- the guy I once knew who inspired a larger-than-life character in both Water Signs and my forthcoming sequel. Let me just say, I am thrilled that the novel came into existence prior to my knowledge of these realities, because Ken has definitely come into his own as a fictional creation -- one that extends far beyond his initial, real-life foundation.

I don't know if the guy I remember from the past and spoke with over the phone as recently as two years ago even existed in the first place, but I choose to believe in his sincerity. Coming from his background, his honorable ambition and drive to succeed -- originally fueled by an admirable work ethic and desire to blaze a new and different trail from the one put forth by his father -- makes it very easy to understand how he'd fall prey so easily to an attractive woman with an agenda. I've seen this scenario play itself out over and over again, especially in South Florida -- particularly in Boca Raton -- where too many people get caught up exclusively in the material trappings of life.

And when either the guy or girl in the scenario isn't strong enough to listen to his/her inner guidance when it's flashing warning signals about an impending marital union, either that person will eventually succumb to the other person's negative influence until they become unrecognizable, choose to remain in the marriage even if miserable or as character Ken does in Water Signs, know when to leave after making every effort to salvage the union.

In Chapter 24 -- a recreation of actual life -- Maddy receives another surprise visit from Ken on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, a few days after dreaming vividly that he'd broken off his engagement to Erin:

By the time early afternoon rolled around, she’d finished her chores and had changed into her bathing suit and cover-up. She was busily placing a towel, a magazine and a few bottles of water into her canvas tote bag when a knock at the door took her by surprise. Her heart lurched when she opened it to find Kenny standing before her, smiling in his typical fashion, dressed in shorts and a tee shirt. It bothered her that in spite of all the pain he’d inflicted, her body still tingled at the mere sight of him. Suddenly, she remembered the dream she’d recently had about him breaking off his engagement.

“Ken! I must say, this is an unexpected surprise!” She endeavored to remain cordial and calm, while keeping her hopes in check.

“Hey, how are you doing, Maddy? Can I come in?”

“Uh, I guess there’s no harm in that,” she replied lightly, offering him a seat and a cold bottle of water.Was it her imagination or did he possess the unmistakable aura of a defeated man?

There was no sparkle, no luster in his aquamarine eyes, which appeared to be lost in thought as he stared off into the distance. And as he held the bottle of Zephyrhills in his hands, he leaned forward on the couch as if grappling with an unspoken, internal conflict.

“Is everything ok?” she inquired, settling in at a safe distance beside him. “You seem a bit preoccupied.”

“Huh? Oh yeah, everything’s fine. It’s just that—well I guess I’ve turned into my father after all,” he sighed. Madeline wasn’t quite sure what to make of that statement, though it hardly coalesced with the profile of a happily engaged man eager to exchange vows with his beloved. What exactly was he trying to convey?

“Oh,” she responded softly, recalling the difficulties he and his dad had endured in the course of their relationship. Though they’d seemed to patch things up that New Year’s Day at her house in Pennsylvania, Maddy had no idea where things stood with them at this point.

“Well is that such a bad thing?” she asked.

Kenny turned to face her, staring deeply into her amber eyes, nearly causing her to tumble to the floor.

“I hope the excitement comes back after Erin and I are married,” he confessed.

Why was he telling her this? Was he just trying to spare her feelings by pretending not to be enthralled by the idea of marrying another woman? Or was he attempting to get her to open up about her feelings for him—feelings she still harbored in the infinite depths of her heart and soul, no matter how hard she fought to expel them?

“Kenny, I don’t know what to say,” she finally blurted out.

“Madeline, do you ever miss our conversations, you know, the way we used to talk? God, you were so easy to talk to!” He ran a hand through his blond hair as he spoke.

“Well, I will admit Kenny that no man before or after you has ever treated me the way you did. No one has come close to that level of affection, respect and kindness.” Her tone was wistful as her thoughts turned to Jake, Jim, Gary and now, Mark.

“It was all you, Maddy,” he insisted. “It was all because you were such a joy to be around. You always listened without judgment; I could talk to you for hours about anything!”

This scene ends with a hug and a few tears, though Madeline -- just like me in real life -- cannot bring herself to admit her true feelings. She's too consumed with an ardent belief in right and wrong, considering an engaged commitment on just as equal a footing as a marital one; in her mind, Ken needs to be strong enough to walk away, even if by doing so there's no guarantee that she, Madeline, will be waiting in the wings.

Her new friends from the dance studio however, beg to differ:

“If you want my opinion, the guy stopped by to see you to try to figure out if getting married is the right thing to do,” Scott offered plainly as he dried himself off on a chaise lounge. Ken had just left after spending nearly four hours poolside with Maddy and her friends from Fred Astaire.

“Or maybe he just wanted one last fling before he ties the knot!” Lloyd teased, playfully punching her in the shoulder. He was blissfully unaware of the ludicrousness of his statement, considering Ken and Madeline’s passionate, but chaste history. However, Maddy wasn’t about to ‘fess up to keeping her virginity intact to this new group of friends, nice as they were. Something gave her the distinct impression such news would raise a few eyebrows as well as concerns for her mental health.

“Nah Lloyd, Kenny’s not like that; he’s a very honorable guy and he knows I have high standards. I don’t go after other women’s boyfriends, fiancées or husbands—it’s just not my style. Besides, if he does break his engagement, I want it to be entirely his decision with no influence from me. If he’s having second thoughts about marrying Erin, he shouldn’t go through with it period, regardless of how I feel or what I do.”

“Yeah, you have a point,” Rebecca concurred. “But I gotta say, Maddy, he gave you the perfect opening to tell him how you really feel. I don’t know—if it was me and I still loved the guy, I’d tell him.”

“Rebecca, I can’t hurt a woman I’ve never even met—a woman who’s done nothing to me just because Kenny and I couldn’t get our timing straight! It wouldn’t be right; I wouldn’t want someone hurting me like that! And even if I did admit my real feelings, there’s no guarantee he’d end things with her anyway. I got the very strong impression that he’s resigned himself to his decision, even if it’s wrong. I don’t think he could live with the guilt of hurting her and her family by backing out now.”

“Well maybe you have a point,” Rebecca conceded. “Still, I’m amazed by you, Maddy. Do you know how many women would move in for the kill in this situation? Hell, I’ve had girlfriends who had no qualms about stealing my boyfriends right out from under my nose!”

“It was strange though, when he called her on his cell from my apartment,” Maddy admitted. He didn’t tell her where he was, for obvious reasons. But it was more than that—it was almost as if he felt stifled by the whole conversation, like she has him on a short leash or something. Anyway, he’s not the upbeat, gregarious, fun-loving guy I remember. And for someone about to get married, he’s sure not excited about it.”

“All I can say is for the guy to spend an entire Saturday afternoon on a Holiday weekend with an old girlfriend, and not his fiancée, something is terribly wrong,” Lloyd commented.

And while I listened to everyone's input, I still couldn't justify hurting a woman I didn't know, simply because "Ken" and I kept messing things up between us, a thought process Madeline articulates in the above paragraph, much to the consternation of the entire group. I will also admit that I wasn't thinking clearly at the time, so enveloped was I in the heartbreak of the whole situation. Maybe there was a little bit of pride at work, too, in the sense of You hurt me? Well,I'll show you I don't need you. You made your choice, now live with it, kind of way.

And it now appears that he's not only living with his choice, he's allowed it transform him from a once thoughtful, mature and deep-thinking individual who was actually concerned with important things far beyond the scope of just his own little world, into a vain, shallow, infantile man who can't stop bragging about his new status in life -- from where he gets his hair cut to his family's latest 5-star vacation.

But in choosing a different ending for Water Signs to keep my main characters around for a compelling sequel, Ken takes an entirely different approach in Chapter 28:

Unfortunately, their live-in arrangement soon revealed significant differences—impediments that Ken hoped would either dissolve entirely, or at least mitigate once they were united in the bonds of marriage. In hindsight of course, he’d realized the folly of his thinking. That while he truly did love Erin, it had been utterly foolish to believe they could actually go the distance with her relentless insecurities, self-centeredness and proclivity towards distrust inflicting slow, steady and ultimately—unfixable, damage to their union.

Every female, whether Ken’s boss, co-worker or fellow college student, provoked Erin’s pervasive jealousy. On more than one occasion he recalled knock-down, drag-out arguments with her over innocuous incidents, from a study session in broad daylight over coffee at Starbucks, to mandatory after-hours socializing with the sales and operations teams at a company-sponsored event.

And a few paragraphs later:

Strange also that this particular year had brought her so much clarity; he’d just signed his divorce papers the previous fall. Did Maddy somehow know that? If she had been aware of his marital status, she offered no indication in her correspondence. His last recent search of public records had revealed no information whatsoever, which was understandable, given that his attorney had advised him it could take up to a year for such records to be updated on Internet databases. With no mutual friends or acquaintances to spread the word, Maddy was most likely in the dark. And that made her gesture even more impressive.

Ken rolled over onto his side, kicking the cotton sheets down to the end of the bed. Ever since having children, he no longer enjoyed the luxury of sleeping in the raw, and had taken to wearing boxer shorts. Tonight, he’d just happened to have chosen a green pair featuring the Philadelphia Eagles logo, though it had been ages since he’d actually slept in them. Somehow it only seemed appropriate. Funny, Erin despised football, one of the many activities Ken and Maddy had delighted in together.

It was also thrilling that she regarded him as a catalyst for positive change in her life, despite all of the heartbreak he’d caused her. And the thought that he’d somehow inspired her was the icing on the cake. All this time he feared she might actually feel nothing but contempt for him, though he completely understood her rationale for keeping her distance. He supposed it was selfish of him to want to keep her as a friend while he gave his love and devotion to another woman, but he’d truly missed her presence in his life.

In the book of course, this leads to a reunion which eventually leads to a marriage proposal and wedding a full 16 years after their initial meeting at the Somers Point Dance Club (which by the way, was a real place called "Key West", though I changed it to "Key Largo" in the novel).

While it is sad to witness through cyberspace such a profound change for the worse in the man I remember, I am thankful for the unexpected rush of memories that led me to create a character who is much beloved by my readers. And unlike his real-life counterpart, Ken will continue to evolve as a man, father, husband, Christian and American, never allowing the material aspects of life -- wonderful as they may be -- to become his "god" or to alter who he is at the very core of his being.

Looking forward to finishing Sea To Shining Sea very soon!

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