A Love Story to Nancy Mauro’s Hometown
By Tiffany Jarva
The forthcoming novel The Sugar Thief by Nancy Mauro is inspired by Thunder Bay’s popular persian, and loosely based on the lore of a local Italian immigrant family and their closely guarded grip on the pastry’s secret recipe.
“I’ve been working on it for a long time, over a decade,” says Mauro, who grew up in Thunder Bay and is the daughter of an immigrant baker. “It’s a bit of a love story to my hometown.” Mauro explains that in the beginning the book—which would become her second novel—was more of an autobiographical exploration of family. “It was going to be about how three young immigrants had to hustle and be scrappy going into the business of running a bakery,” Mauro says. She was trying to capture the spirit of her industrious father Ralph Mauro and his cousins, Vince Mauro and Mario Nucci, who bought Bennett’s Bakery from a widowed Julia Bennett in the 1960s. Before passing away, Art Bennett was the baker who created a cinnamon bun-like pastry with pink icing, and it is believed that he named it the “Pershing” for war hero General John J. Pershing. “Along the way, somehow the name—maybe because it was difficult to pronounce—was changed to persian,” explains Mauro. In the novel, Mauro fictionalizes the contents of the secret recipe. “Recreating and learning the chemistry to come up with a recipe was one of my favourite parts of writing the book. It was a lot of fun.”
Initially, Mauro spent many hours delving into research. Her hope was to focus on unravelling the mystery of the persian, while documenting the stories of her immigrant family from southern Italy’s Calabria region. However, Mauro says the extensive research started to hamper her writing progress, so she shifted gears. “I decided to focus on the generation after the first immigrants arrived,” she says. She set her new novel in the present day and the 1980s. She also shifted to fiction, using satire to weave in the tale of Sabine, a social media star who has a YouTube baking channel that attracts millions. Sabine is gunning for her own Netflix show, and executives want to see her return to her hometown Thunder Bay to document the 40th anniversary celebrations of her family’s local bakery.
“Sabine returns home for superficial reasons, yet while home she starts to piece together the secret of her father,” explains Mauro. It’s a novel about coming home, and a commentary on the pitfalls of chasing social media celebrity. In the novel, Sabine learns that her father had to escape his home country, like how Sabine felt like she had to escape Thunder Bay. In somewhat of a parallel way, Mauro left Thunder Bay when she was 19. As an adult she has lived in Toronto, Vancouver, and now resides in Brooklyn, New York. Mauro tries to visit Thunder Bay at least once a year to see family. “I think in many of us there’s a longing for a place to call home.” In addition to the Italian Canadian bakeries and the persian, local readers will recognize familiar references to the Sleeping Giant, Lake Superior, and past places like Ziegler’s Furniture.
The Sugar Thief is set for release on July 19.