Books: Ravioli as Life

In her oddly titled memoir, "The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken," food writer Laura Schenone melds two unlikely genres: a mom story—in this case, the struggle of a modern woman to raise two kids in the suburbs—and food writing.

Her premise is simple. Buoyed by the success of her acclaimed social history, "A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes and Remembrances," published in 2004, Schenone set out to uncover a bit of her own history by searching for the origins of a Schenone family tradition: making an obscure kind of ravioli at Christmas. Although she was raised "American but with an Italian bent" in New Jersey, her search takes her far beyond that state, to the kitchens of aging relatives and several times to remote parts of Italy. Which all sounds like an article in a high-end food magazine—a ham and gruyere sandwich of an undertaking. Instead, "The Lost Recipes" delivers a much more sumptious treat.

In Shenone's capable hands, her search—at times, she admits, obsession—with a ravioli becomes a vehicle for taking on some of life's big themes: the immigrant experience, contemporary American values, as well as love, friendship, regret and reconciliation. In the space of a few pages, we learn about the regional differences in the herbs used for ripieno (ravioli filling), we are treated to a reverie on intimacy in middle age and we're offered a meditation on loving and forgetting. She gives us a tutorial about the role chestnuts played in the lives of poor 19th-century northern Italians (a staple). Then she describes the stretching and tearing that goes on when a woman downshifts her ambitions and melds her identity with her small child in order to sustain him, then struggles to separate and become whole again. Yes, this book is about pasta, but, Schenone reminds us, food is life. Her three struggles—to balance the quotidian distractions of domesticity with a thriving creative life, to accept, even embrace, the imperfect past and, going forward, to live a rich, engaging life—are the central ingredient of this dish.

As memoirs must, "The Lost Recipes of Hoboken" reveals much about the Schenone family. But her unremarkable story of lower-middle-class life in the '70s is cleverly subsumed by the questions she asks and then demands that readers answer for themselves. What is authenticity? What role do traditions play in our lives? How important is our connection to the past? The conclusions that Schenone guides us to are unsentimental and unexpected. She has produced a book about food if you understand food to mean "all that nourishes us." This is feast for the mind and the heart, as well as the palate.