I’ve been doing a little research. My current work-in-progress features an Italian-American protagonist and I’ve needed to get inside her head. That has meant trying to understand her culture, her history, her family and….her food. You can already start to imagine what a burden this has been. I’ve been eating Italian food like cuh-raze-y, frequenting my local Italian deli (surely the best in all of Sydney) and hanging about Italian festivals.
Yes. I have loved every single minute of it.
But, as you know, really truly understanding another culture is tricky business. In all the travelling I’ve done I’ve found cultures to be multi-dimensional, complex and, often, contradictory. Different regions can give rise to very different cultural ‘personalities’ and just when you think you’ve got things pegged you encounter another exception. If all that wasn’t enough I elected not one but two foreign (to me) cultures for my main character in this work. [Or she / they elected me, but that’s a whole other story about how characters come into your life. Right?!]
This is not my first go at writing from a cultural perspective that is not my own. Grace, protagonist of The Colour of Tea is English. Perhaps one day I will finally attempt a manuscript written from the perspective of a nomadic, kiwi girl with a slightly unhealthy love for libraries and baking! For now, I have my work cut out for me – living in the head of an Italian-American and eating my deli out of bocconcini, baked ricotta, marinated olives and tiny tins of anchovies. I’ve accidentally stumbled into the best suburb of Sydney to live for my research – Five Dock – and have gotten accustomed to writing in cafes with the mellifluous sing-song sounds of Italian being spoken in the background, smells of espresso and a perfect, chewy, almond meal biscotti at my elbow. Life is tough.
At this time of year, in my neighbourhood, the most ubiquitous sight in the delis and supermarkets is a mountain of variously coloured panettone boxes on sale. Panettone is a sweet, dried-fruit-bejewelled bread, served at Christmas. The boxes are pretty and the price point is ridiculously low, the stores now trying to clear their stock and make room on their shelves. I’d always wanted to try panettone but had never given it a go, so I was grateful that the Italian-American protagonist occupying my thoughts gave me the push I needed. Personal verdict? I like it. It’s a mix between a very light fruit cake and brioche. It’s lightly spiced, eggy, sweet but not overly sweet. Fluffy and light inside with a firmer outer crust and resembling a gigantic…muffin? Well, that was the panettone I bought. I am sure they vary greatly. All the more reason to keep sampling them…
Although I loved the panettone, I can’t say the rest of my family helped me dig into the huge serving. So I’ve been staring at my humungous panettone and feeling guilty. Like many of you, I am sure, I come from a long line of proud non-wasters. Food is a gift and a pleasure not to be thrown away lightly! I had to do something with all that glorious panettone, so I started in on research for recipes and finally ended up making up my own version of Panettone Bread and Butter Pudding.
Now, this may well be the equivalent of making rice pudding from leftover rice from a Chinese dinner. I’m guessing that no Italian or Italian-American does this kind of thing! In fact, I could be horrifying someone out there that I’d even think of it and I am sure there is a much more traditional alternative to panettone leftovers. But perhaps that’s just the way with us writers of fiction – we have to accept a certain amount of deviation from “real-ness”. It’s a challenging journey to make – walking the line between creating a genuine voice and taking a chance to create a fictional character. Research can bog you down and become obsessive, in the search for a “true” voice, requiring, at some point, a leap of faith. It’s ironic that while I’ve been pondering this issue a lot lately, I’ve gone and made something just like the issue – a merging of something quintessentially Italian and Me. My tastes, my musings, my fiction.
I don’t know if I’m going to get my protagonist “right”. Probably not, hopefully not too far “wrong”. I’m sure it will take a lot of finessing through the editing process to get her closer to the mark. But for the record, the food version, my panettone bread and butter pudding was quite yummy, thank you. Or at least I thought so.
What’s your favourite part about “getting inside the head” of a protagonist?
Panettone Bread and Butter Pudding:
50g butter, 3/4 large panettone (2lbs, 908g size), 100ml milk, 300ml cream, 3 large eggs, 8 tsp sugar
Heat oven to 180 degrees celsius, butter slices of panettone
Grease a one litre pie dish with butter (I used my Staub dutch oven)
Cover dish base with panettone, buttered side up. Layer.
In a saucepan heat milk and cream but do not boil.
In a separate bowl beat eggs with 3/4 of sugar till light and airy and pale in colour
Pour warm milk mixture over eggs, continue beating until all milk mixture added.
Pour this mixture over the panettone slowly, push the liquid gently into the panettone. Sprinkle remaining sugar on the top.
Bake in a hot oven for approximately 30 minutes, until the surface is golden brown and the pudding risen and egg mixture set.
Serve hot with ice-cream, cream or whatever tickles your fancy!