Friday, October 10, 2008

Ravioli Reading

Laura Schenone is the author of The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: a Search for Food and Family, a book that must have taken her many years to write. There are at least three trips to Italy and lots of years go by. At book's start, she realizes she wants to connect with her Italian family's food heritage, specifically ravioli, a traditional food of festivity and celebration. There has been a disconnect in her family, and no one has collected the family recipes. There may be an old ravioli press or two, but that's it. And many members of her father's New Jersey-based family are not even speaking to each other.

But Schenone is a persistent (some would say obsessed) food historian. I'm a big admirer of her James Beard Award-winning book, A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: a History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances. I never tired reading of her quest for authentic ravioli. After all, there's a lot to cover: the pasta itself and the fillings, also the sauce. She learns how to make pasta herself, with and without a pasta machine, under the tutelage of aged ravioli crones in Italy, as well as American relatives she reconnects with. Like many food memoirs, the book is as much about life, family, self-identity and geography as it is about food. By book's end, Schenone's family has truly reconnected over the ravioli rituals, and it's a good thing to see!

I found myself thinking I'd like to make pasta sometime myself. I grew up just down the street from an Italian family whose wonderful mother made pasta by hand. I got used to seeing long strips of it hanging on the backs of chairs and elsewhere. An unusual ingredient connected to pasta Schenone introduces readers to is chestnut flour. In the Liguria region of Italy where her relatives came from, chestnut trees are everywhere, thus the use of chestnuts in all kinds of recipes. (Perhaps now I know why roasted chestnuts are sold from handcarts on the streets of Manhattan; it must have been the influence of Italian immigrants.) Lost Ravioli Recipes is a zesty, sensory idyll introducing all sorts of ingredients that go into various pastas and Italian dishes. The fillings for ravioli often depended on local ingredients, and relative wealth. Lesser cuts of meat were used by poorer peoples, if meat was used at all. Herbs and greens varied from hilltop to mountainside.

I think the first culinary memoir I read was Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl. It was great, and I forevermore was hooked on the genre. For a culinary memoirs reading list, link to one we did at the HCPL eBranch. Next up: I'm looking forward to reading Bento Box in the Heartland: my Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America by Linda Furiya.

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