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My Culture

Cultural awareness is often obscure and sometimes just out of reach.

Cultural awareness is often obscure and sometimes just out of reach.

Somewhere I read that it is impossible to know a culture completely unless you’ve been born into it. The more experiences you have in the new, adopted culture might add to your understanding—your psychic database—but you will never lose the capacity to be utterly thrown by some new, seemingly inexplicable aspect of your new world. Which pretty much describes where we are today.

In Italy, everyone goes to the beach at once, and everyone is perfectly comfortable with very close proximity—a cultural norm not especially native to Anglo Saxons.

In Italy, everyone goes to the beach at once, and everyone is perfectly comfortable with very close proximity—a cultural norm not especially native to Anglo Saxons.

We have been living more or less full time in Martina Franca, Italy, ever since saying goodbye to family, friends, jobs and a lifetime of carefully curated memorabilia over two years ago. We knew what we were in for when we took the plunge. After all, our ties to Puglia were almost 20 years deep and we had already lived in Italy at length at different times in our lives. But dropping in for a visit and living like you mean to stay are not the same thing. Not at all.

As far as we can tell, hanging up the laundry in Italy is a task that falls within the exclusive province of women.

As far as we can tell, hanging up the laundry in Italy is a task that falls within the exclusive province of women.

So when we packed our suitcases to make our move, we packed much more than our wardrobes. It turns out that our values, assumptions, biases  and communication styles are some of the things we found when we unpacked our cultural baggage. Neatly folded into one corner of one bag, for example, were our views on time. In the U.S., we spend time, because, well, time is money. We show up at the appointed hour and react poorly when we find time squandered unnecessarily. In another corner of our suitcase, we found our set of assumptions about gender roles. And tucked away in the zippered side pockets, we noticed that we brought along our sense of personal space and relative (lack of) comfort level with confrontation. And those were just a few of the preconceptions we noticed consciously. Waiting to be revealed were our mannerisms, humor and expressions, which often surface here when we least expect them.

We are always treated to a detailed tutorial on vegetable preparation from our favorite vendors in the market because they are convinced that we won't know how to prepare them.

We are always treated to a detailed tutorial on vegetable preparation from our favorite vendors in the Martina Franca market because they are convinced that we won’t know how to prepare them.

In some ways, we find it liberating to be as different as we are. Even our Italian friends who know us well don’t hold us to a set of Italian cultural standards since they seem to understand inherently that we do things differently where we came from. And we’re relatively free to try on (and discard) the elements of our adopted culture that don’t fit us very well. Mastery of the language goes a long way toward bridging the cultural divide, but in some ways, it serves to deepen our awareness of the nuances that comprise our own culture, our own self-awareness. An unexpected dividend of embracing Italy has been a much deeper, more deeply felt sense of what it means to be American.

American flags and sparklers were not in evidence on the 4th of July in Italy, so we celebrated without them.

American flags and sparklers were not in evidence on the 4th of July in Italy, so we celebrated without them (Photo credit: http://www.bizjournal.com).

We spent this year’s American Independence Day with English and Italian friends. If you haven’t celebrated an identity-defining holiday like the 4th of July in a place that doesn’t recognize it, we recommend that you give it a try. You’ve got to really want to make a fuss—no one else around you will do it for you. There isn’t a backdrop of fireworks, flags and traditional food to buoy you up. Hamburger buns, corn on the cob and strawberry rhubarb pie are thin on the ground. And when you do recreate your culturally anachronistic holiday for a brand new audience, you’ll find yourself just a little more connected to what it all means to you.

Our July 4th celebration featured bacon cheeseburgers with lettuce, tomato and avocado. Yes, we found one perfect avocado. It was a miracle. We added homemade mayonnaise, caramelized onions, Italian catsup and spicy Dijon mustard for a gustatory overload not usually found on Italian plates. We also served a classic potato salad and green

Cheddar cheese was out of the question, but we made a great burger with bacon, gorgonzola and homemade mayonnaise.

Cheddar cheese was out of the question, but we made a great burger with bacon, gorgonzola and homemade mayonnaise.

beans in vinaigrette. For dessert? What else but strawberry shortcake made the way my southern grandmother taught me: buttermilk biscuits, slightly sweetened cream whipped to soft peaks and mounds of quartered strawberries and their deep pink juice. We sat on our roof terrace watching the stars come out, drinking Italian rosé and wishing for a sparkler or two, feeling thoroughly American yet oddly, happily, at home.

Not exactly from the vintage Americana culinary repertoire, but lovely nonetheless.

Not exactly from the vintage Americana culinary repertoire, but lovely nonetheless.

I promised Italian friends that I would share the strawberry shortcake recipe, which is sure to evoke commentary from Americans who bring their own cultural experience to the execution of this summertime classic. My version is from the southern United States—in my case, Tennessee—and not as sweet as some. Feel free to adjust accordingly, unpacking your own culture nuance and adding it to the mix.

Classic Southern (maybe Midwestern, too) Strawberry Shortcake.

Classic Southern (maybe Midwestern, too) strawberry shortcake.

Strawberry Shortcake

Ingredients:

2 ¼ cups (280 grams) flour

2 tsp. (10 grams) sugar

1 Tbsp. (15 grams) baking powder

¾ tsp. (5 grams) Kosher or sea salt

¾ tsp. (5 grams) baking soda

9 Tbsp. (125 grams) butter, frozen

¾ cup (175 ml) buttermilk (if you don’t have buttermilk, measure a little less than ¾ cup milk and add 1 Tbsp. cider vinegar, stir, and let sit for 10 minutes before using)

Flaky buttermilk biscuits are not particularly sweet, which makes them a perfect foil for the strawberries and whipped cream that adorn them.

Flaky buttermilk biscuits are not particularly sweet, which makes them a perfect foil for the strawberries and whipped cream that adorn them in strawberry shortcake.

2 Tbsp. milk

1 tsp. sugar

½ lb. (250 grams) fresh strawberries

1 ½ cups (375 ml) heavy whipping cream, chilled

2 Tbsp. (30 grams) confectioner’s (powdered) sugar

1 ½ tsp. almond extract (use vanilla extract if you prefer it)

Method:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (205 degrees Celsius). Cover baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Sift flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and baking powder into a mixing bowl. Using the widest holes on a box grater, grate the frozen butter into the dry ingredients. Using your fingers, mix the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture looks like coarse meal. Add the buttermilk (or milk with added vinegar) to the mixture and stir until everything clumps together. Set aside the spoon and, using your hands, knead the dough just until it comes together in a smooth, amalgamated ball. Don’t over knead!

Don't attempt Strawberry Shortcake unless the strawberries are perfectly sweet, ripe and fragrant.

Don’t attempt strawberry shortcake unless the strawberries are perfectly sweet, ripe and fragrant.

Transfer the bowl to a floured work surface (marble is great for this!) and pat or roll it out with a rolling pin to a thickness of about ½ to ¾ of an inch (14 to 20 mm). Using a round cutter or an overturned glass with a diameter of about 2 ½ inches (6.5 cm), cut out rounds by pressing straight down. Don’t twist the cutter or glass; the sides of the biscuits won’t be as layered when the biscuits are baked. Transfer the rounds to the prepared baking sheet.

Brush the tops of the biscuits with milk, then sprinkle a little granulated sugar over the tops. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until the biscuits are golden brown. Don’t overbake! Let the biscuits cook completely, then slice them horizontally.

Remove stems, then quarter larger berries and halve smaller ones before mixing with sugar and lemon juice.

Remove stems, then quarter larger berries and halve smaller ones before mixing with sugar and lemon juice.

While the biscuits are baking, remove the green stem ends of the strawberries and quarter the strawberries. If they are especially small, cut them in half. Place them in a bowl, then sprinkle the granulated sugar over the top and squeeze the juice of half a lemon into the bowl. Mix well, then let the strawberries sit, covered, at room temperature to release strawberry juice in the bottom of the bowl.

Place the heavy cream in a deep, high-sided bowl. Add the confectioner’s sugar and almond extract, then beat the cream using a handheld rotary beater or a whisk. Beat until the cream develops soft peaks that hold their own.

Perfect whipped cream for strawberry shortcake should be whipped until soft peaks form. Don't be tempted to use prepared whipped cream, and don't pipe the whipped cream onto the shortcake. The effect should be casual and easy, not manipulated.

Perfect whipped cream for strawberry shortcake should be whipped until soft peaks form. Don’t be tempted to use prepared whipped cream, and don’t pipe the whipped cream onto the shortcake with a pastry bag. The effect should be casual and easy, not manipulated.

To serve the strawberry shortcakes, place the bottom half of a biscuit on a serving plate or shallow bowl. Place a heaping spoonful of strawberries on the biscuit half, making sure to include plenty of strawberry juice to moisten the biscuit half. Spoon a dollop of whipped cream on top of the strawberries and top with the top half of the biscuit. If you have enough strawberries and whipped cream, place another small serving of strawberries topped with a small spoonful of whipped cream. Garnish with a tiny mint leaf, if you like. Serve immediately.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Catherine, you evoke sweet memories of my dear Great-aunt Dee, your precious grandmother. And as someone who has entertained The British on the Fourth of July, I appreciate some of the cultural collisions that take place!

    July 24, 2014
    • Rachel, when I make those biscuits, I think of my grandmother (your Aunt Dee) and feel as though I’m channeling her. The perfume of the baking biscuits, the sweet berries and the soft, white cream make me feel her presence so intensely. Thanks so much for sharing your memories of her with me.

      July 24, 2014

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