Thursday, January 8, 2009

Book Review: The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken by Laura Schenone

I have had the luxury of knowing my family history on my mother's side back to 1621 or so when, ten generations ago, Thomas Jenkins and his family arrived in Baltimore from Wales. One of my great uncles, among his many accomplishments, traced our family geneology back to his parent's native Wales and Ireland. I haven't had that good fortune on my father's side of the family. I know my great-grandparents' entrance papers from Ellis Island are somewhere in my aunt's house, so I could embark on that quest for family answers if I want to. That bug still hasn't bitten, but after reading about Laura Schenone's own personal quest for family history, I have definitely thought about it more. Overall, I enjoyed Schenone's memoir, Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken. At times I found her pretentious and ungrateful for the living family members she had, but her acknowledgement of these weaknesses tempered my annoyance.

The book began with Laura making Christmas ravioli alone in her kitchen. She and her husband had chosen to forgo the big family Christmas that year. At first I found this bold decision refreshing, but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered how you can justify cutting your living family out of Christmas while you are grasping at ways to be closer to the great-great-greats that you never met and a land you've never seen. This sense of dissatisfaction with her "family of today" was even further illustrated when she scoffed at her Great Aunt Tessie's ravioli recipe because it contained cream cheese, not a traditional Italian soft cheese. However, her dissatisfaction did launch the quest for her own personal grail, without which we would not have this book.

I was intrigued by Schenone's questions about the origins of a person's predisposition towards a particular cuisine or natural setting. For example, she has a strong affinity for chestnuts and the seaside. Her Italian ancestors hail from Genoa, a coastal community rich in chestnut trees--so much that many residents make their own chestnut flour instead of spending hard-earned money on typical wheat or grain flour. Can culinary preferences or tolerance for a certain climate be programmed into your genes? These questions yield inconclusive findings, but it's great food for thought, especailly for this evolution-loving girl.

At times the book was saved by the majestic, delicious descriptions of Northern Italy and its generous, hospitable people. More redeeming qualities include further explanations of Schenone's relations with her immediate family and eventual reconcilliations. The narrative's flaws were not enough to keep this reader away, and they even taught me a lesson. If you feel like you are missing something in your life or your family, you are probably not going to find it halfway around the world with people you've never met.

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