Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How an Idea Became a Story

            Fish Tales, an anthology of mystery stories from the Guppy chapter of Sisters in Crime, officially went on sale this week, following a week of ebook sales. I’m delighted to be one of the twenty-two authors.
The publication process spread over two years, including the writing, the evaluation, the editing, and the submissions to publishers. Wildside Press offered a contract last November, and now we have a book.
 As soon as the call for submissions went out, I knew immediately that I wanted to write a story spotlighting Caroline Woodlock, the protagonist in the novels I’m working on, and I had a plan. Then the call was amended. Each story had to include water, preferably water where fish would swim.
I was furious! To begin with, I thought the idea of a themed anthology was lame. Second, I thought the idea of using fish as the theme because our chapter of SinC is called the Guppies was even lamer. (For the uninitiated, let me explain that Guppy is short for Great Unpublished, a description that doesn’t fit many Guppies anymore.)
But I was wrong! I’ve read all the stories in the anthology, and they are a wonderful mix. Each author brings an original slant to the water/fish idea, and the central theme links the diverse stories. The back cover blurb tells the tale:
Fish Tales, The Guppy Anthology, casts a wide net across the mystery genre, delivering thrills, chills, and gills. This water-themed collection features locked room puzzles, police procedurals, cozy characters and hardboiled detectives. With a pool of motivations ranging from greed and revenge to loyalty and justice, these stories will lure you with killer hooks and fishy characters.
Come on in, the water’s fine. But be careful or you might find yourself sleeping with the fishes!
My original story featured neither fish nor water. I had to develop a new plan. Caroline lives in Rome, and while a river runs through the city, the Tiber doesn’t immediately bring fish to mind. She writes about food, so I realized that she could be cooking fish. A body of water was more problematic. A pot of water boiling for the pasta just wouldn’t do.
And then I had one of those “lightbulb” moments. The Trevi Fountain gushes water in the heart of Rome, and its imagery of fish and the sea provided a way to symbolize the murderer’s character. Once I had these two elements, the story practically wrote itself.
Throughout the story, Caroline cooks a fish stew from Livorno called cacciucco. The recipe follows. Originally a peasant dish, cacciucco has made its way into fine restaurants around the world. The recipe can be daunting, but if you take things in stages, it isn’t overwhelming.
First, you need to make fish stock. You can make this ahead and store it in the freezer. Ask your fishmonger for fish scraps (the heads and bones left over from filleting fish); they’ll give them to you. Take these scraps home and put them in a pot with a white onion, a carrot, a rib of celery, some parsley stems and a little white wine. Cover with water, and bring to a simmer. Cook for about 30 minutes. Cool and strain. Boil it down to concentrate flavors if it seems too watery. You can freeze it at this point, and I recommend it. It’s like having gold in the freezer.
You can speed up the actual cooking process by doing preps of all the ingredients a few hours ahead and storing them in the fridge.
The Recipe
2-3 pounds mixed fish—really get a mixture varied flavors. If you can get a squid or an eel, so much the better. And a few small octopuses are also nice. And choose inexpensive fish; this was a peasant dish. (My story tells the legend of the soup’s origin.)
½ pound of mussels, cleaned of their beards
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves of garlic
½ cup finely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 medium onion, (I prefer red)
1 medium carrot
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups canned tomato sauce
2 cups of fish stock
6 large shrimp
6 slices of rustic bread (Tuscan bread is unsalted)
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut the fish into bite-sized pieces and reserve.
Chop together the onion, carrot and two of the cloves of garlic.
Put the olive oil in a large pot, add the onion-carrot-garlic mixture, ¼ cup of parsley and the cayenne pepper. Cook over medium heat for about four minutes, until the vegetables begin to lose their color.
Pour in the wine and cook for a minute or two, then add the tomato sauce and the fish stock. Salt and pepper to taste. Add the fish, reserving the mussels and shrimp for later. Cook for about 20 minutes. Add the mussels and shrimp, and cook another 5-7 minutes until the shrimp has cooked through and the mussels have opened. Taste again for seasoning.
Chop the remaining garlic together with the remaining parsley. Place a slice of bread in each soup plate, ladle in the cacciucco, and sprinkle with the garlic-parsley mixture. Serves six.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It Makes No Cents

Italian cashiers don’t like to make change. None of them. Nowhere. No time. It doesn’t matter what you give them, they always ask for something else UNLESS you’ve given them exact change. If the bill is an even 6 and you hand over a 10 note, the cashier will ask for a one euro coin so they can give you back a 5 note. Once, when the cashier rang up my purchase, the total was 4.98. I handed her a five. All she had to do was give me back one coin. She asked me for correct change. That would have required a minimum of nine coins: two 2 euro, one 50 centesimo, two 20 centesimo, one 10 centesimo, one 5 centesimo, two 2 centesimo, and one 1 centesimo. And if I hadn’t had those exact denominations, I would have needed even more.
One of the problems may simply be that the euro has too many coins: one- and two-euros, 50-, 20-, 10-, 5-, 2-, and 1-centesimo (cents). The fact that the original nine European Union countries could have their own designs on the tails side of each coin complicates matters. There are actually 72 different coins!
But the problem may go back to the days of the lira. Some of the smaller coins had so little value that they were made of aluminum. When I first came to Italy many years ago, cashiers in bars and some shops kept a dish of hard candy by the cash register. They would frequently hand over a piece of candy or two in lieu those aluminum coins. Now cashiers simply round off, usually keeping the difference in the till. For example, if you’re due back 4.96, the cashier may hand you 4.95, claiming not to have a one centesimo coin. It rarely goes the other way.
You can imagine the back-up at the supermarket. We all wait for each customer to scratch through a coin purse for exact change while the cashier takes a sip of water or talks with a co-worker. It’s very common for people to simply hold out a handful of change and trust the cashier to take the correct amount. I don’t subscribe to that method.
When I first came to Rome, the euro had only been in circulation for a few months. Cashiers always asked me could they look at my change. I was deeply offended because I thought they thought the foreigner didn’t understand the currency. Now I realize no one understood the currency, least of all the Italians. In those days, receipts gave not only the amount in euro, but also the lira conversion so people had a point of reference. And I honestly didn’t notice when that practice stopped.
I once asked a cashier who insisted that I look again in my purse for coins, “What is your job?” She grinned and said, “To ask you for correct change.” If you do have the correct change, the cashier says, “Brava! Brava!” as if you’ve done something outstanding.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Do Vampires Drink Blood Orange Juice?

This question about vampires popped into my head as I was squeezing out my morning glass. Blood orange season is at its peak here, and these noble orbs from Sicily dominate every fruit stand in Italy. When the season begins just after Christmas, I start buying oranges for juice. At first, they look like any orange when you cut into them—they’re orange. But as the season progresses, a little tinge of red appears. It  resembles a drop of blood in a basin of water the way it appears to spread across the orange pulp.

At the beginning of the season, when the pulp is more orange than red, the juice acquires a rosy glow. As the season waxes, the red pulp overtakes the orange and the juice becomes redder and redder. It’s on the wane now, and the red is diminishing each day. At this point, a bag of oranges is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolate: you never know what you’re going to get. This morning, for example, the first orange I cut into had barely any red at all. The second one was mahogany. But the juice was a rich rose, and the taste exquisite.

At this time of year, oranges dominate our menus, too. A couple of weeks ago, I unearthed a duck breast from my freezer (part of a duck I’d bought a few months ago and cut into individual portions). I saut├ęd it with a little garlic, adding blood orange juice to cook a sauce, and finally the orange sections at the last minute. Delicious!

But blood oranges are eaten fresh more often than cooked. One of my favorite ways of eating them is in a salad with fennel and black olives. It’s simple, tasty, and can be made with any type of oranges, but blood ones add a beautiful color.


(serves 2)
1 large fennel bulb
2-3 blood oranges (or regular oranges)
½ cup oil cured black olives
Extra virgin olive oil (to taste)
Black pepper (to taste)
   Wash the fennel and cut out the tough core. Slice very thinly. You can do this by hand or with your food processor blade. I use a little slicer available in markets here for around $8.
  Using a sharp knife, peel and cut out the orange sections from the pith.
    Arrange the fennel on a plate; place the oranges and olives evenly on top.
    Add a few grindings of black pepper. The olives are salty enough, so you won’t need salt.
    Drizzle on the olive oil.

Cultural note: The Italian translation of “to taste” is quanto basta which literally means “enough.” Italian recipes often have the abbreviation q.b. meaning “to taste.”

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What Is in a Name?

     Google Alerts delivered this message two days after my first blog post: Patricia Winton Police Blotter. I read “blogger” instead of “blotter,” and a bubble of joy filled my chest. I thought my blog had made some list and I’d have readers beyond friends and family. I clicked and saw: Patricia Winton Arrest. The bubble burst and bile rose in my throat. I clicked again and saw: Patricia Z arrested in Winton, California.
     This is the second time in four months that Google Alerts has delivered news of Patricia Winton’s arrest. Back in December, on Rome’s coldest day this winter, I had two hours to kill between appointments. I wandered into a department store where I walked the aisles, fingering candles and pajamas and soup pots. Anything to pass the time in a warm place.
     Everywhere I went, I saw the same two guys. One looked like store security in his spiffy suit and shiny shoes. The other, a muscular guy in raggedy track suit and tattered sneakers, looked like he was there to rob the place. They were in house wares; they were in lingerie; they were in handbags. I lingered in handbags to buy a wallet.
     As I left the store, I noticed a little beep, but nothing alarming. Suddenly, the burly guy I had seen earlier leapt into my path and showed me ID. He was store security and the little beep I heard was in fact an alarm. “Signora,” he said. “Did you leave without paying?” As I began searching the two bags I was carrying to locate the wallet and receipt, he kept peppering me with questions. “Did you just forget to pay?” A crowd gathered. The questions continued. The crowd grew larger. The more questions he asked, the more agitated I became. I fumbled with zippers. I rattled paper. Just as he was reaching for my arm to take me who knows where, I found the wallet and receipt. He examined them both, glanced at me and said, “You’ll have to take these back to the cashier.” No smile and no apology.
     The very next day, Google Alerts delivered the news that Patricia Winton had been arrested for shoplifting. You can’t imagine the emotions that roiled in my chest that time, especially since the woman was my age and in my home state of Tennessee. The coincidence is uncanny. I come from a law enforcement family: my father was a sheriff and my sister worked for the FBI. It’s a weird feeling to have my name on the wrong side of the law.
     So I’m wondering, is it a good thing or bad for a mystery writer to share a name with jailbirds? I hope you’ll leave a comment with your thoughts on the question.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Does the World Need Another Blog?

Probably not. But here it is anyway. Welcome to the first edition of Italian Intrigues where I’ll be writing about my three passions: life in Italy, food and wine, mysteries and crime.
I’m an American who’s lived in Italy for more than 12 years, the past nine in Rome. For a long time, I’ve toyed with the notion of writing crime fiction. I’ve plotted and researched numerous ideas over the years, often as a non-lethal way of seeking revenge against people who irked me. I figured out how to kill a member of a certain state assembly in the members-only chamber, for example, and I discovered a way to knock off an annoying neighbor while I was out of town.
Here in Rome, I’ve merged my three passions to create a pair of characters who explore Italy’s culinary scene, which is littered with dead bodies. She’s a journalist who has moved to her mother’s native Italy to build a new career as a food writer. He’s a professor of Italian culinary history and traditions at a 700-year-old university. When their paths cross, sparks fly. She uses her nose for news and he uses his professorial curiosity to unmask killers.
My passion for Italy was kindled by college art history classes that opened up the Renaissance for me and made me long to visit Florence. Soon after graduation, I had an opportunity to live in Tuscany for three years—a short train-ride from the Florence of my dreams. While there I learned to make pasta with an Italian chef and lugged a pasta machine (about the same weight as an anvil) back to America when I returned. And my career as a cooking teacher was launched. Pasta 101 led to Heart Smart Italian Food which led to Delicious Desserts which led to…. You get the idea.
And all this led to a newspaper column called A Matter of Taste, where I wrote about food and culture. For five years that Wednesday deadline had to be met regardless of where I was or how I felt. So, I’ve decided that Italian Intrigues will be posted every Wednesday to satisfy my need for a deadline and to perhaps recapture the fun I had writing that column.
I hope you’ll drop by often. Or better yet, subscribe to the RSS feed by clicking the little orange square in the address line above. And please post a comment if the mood strikes you.
See you next week.