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The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family
by Laura Schenone

Published: 2008-10-13
Paperback : 352 pages
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When James Beard Award–winning author Laura Schenone undertakes a quest to retrieve her great grandmother’s recipe for ravioli, she finds herself on an unforgettable journey. Her original goal was simple enough: to learn to make an authentic old family dish. But things get more complicated as ...
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When James Beard Award–winning author Laura Schenone undertakes a quest to retrieve her great grandmother’s recipe for ravioli, she finds herself on an unforgettable journey. Her original goal was simple enough: to learn to make an authentic old family dish. But things get more complicated as she reunites with relatives, digs up buried family stories, and finds conflicting ideas about the past and what is true. Schenone takes her readers from the gritty landscape of New Jersey’s industrial wastelands and its fast-paced suburbs to the dramatically beautiful coast of Liguria—homeland of her ancestors—with its rapturous pesto, smoked chestnuts, torte, and, most beloved of all, ravioli, the food of happiness and celebration. Finding her way into the kitchens of trattorias and legendary home cooks in Genoa, she discovers the persistent importance of place and offers a perceptive voice on ethnicity in its twilight. The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken is a story of the comedies and foibles of family life, of love and loss, of old homes and new—and of the mysteries of pasta, rolled on a pin into a perfect circle of gossamer dough.

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Roberto is dressed in chef whites standing at the pasta board near an open window that looks out to the hills. He’s evidently waiting for me.

“Piacere,” he offers, with a diffident smile. Roberto has intense blue eyes and a handsome face, mellowing into his forties. He does not speak English, but with six months more Italian under my belt, I understand nearly all he says. Not that this is really about words anyway. Roberto is a master pasta maker, and he has spent too many years bending over the pasta board for speeches. La Brinca is one of the rare restaurants that makes all pasta by hand anymore, so he’s a busy guy with a lot to do. He’s eager to get the demonstration under way. Already he’s opening a plastic bin to reveal several round loaves of pasta dough lined up—already kneaded, stretched, and rested, already supple and smooth as baby cheeks, ready for rolling. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. What is the significance of each of the three epigraphs at beginning of the book? How do they relate to the entire work separately and together?

2. Of her ravioli quest, Laura writes, “It began, as many journeys do, in a small way, with an inchoate yearning, a desire for something I only partly understood—perhaps just desire itself, hitting me amidst the sound of cars whooshing by my house on a busy suburban street. Desire rising up against my two sons asking for foods they could suck out of plastic tubes, for aqua blue cereals, for iridescent red strips of corn syrup—things that I am not certain can reasonably be termed ‘food’ but nonetheless are sold as such. Desire for an inner life where advertising could not reach.” Have you ever shared any of these feelings? What do you think Schenone is really searching for, and how does her quest change as her journey unfolds?

3. After reading this book, do you believe that recipes are worthy of attention in history? Do you have recipes in your family that are significant or that you can trace “back into history, further and further back, into an ancient past”?

4. Laura begins her book with a prologue called “Myths of Origin,” presenting a tale of a mason and a talking mushroom that somewhat resembles her own family story, except with a magical twist. Considering the role of myths in families and history, why do you think the author made this decision? How do mythologies work to enable and justify claims to heritage, land, and ethnicity?

5. Laura asks after she goes to Italy, “Can a person feel connected to a place he or she has never been to before? Is it possible that we have origins inside us?” Have you ever felt this way about a place?

6. Family takes many shapes in this book. How does Laura’s search for authentic ravioli relate to her family relationships? How does Schenone’s relationship with her father affect her search?

7. “Chestnut was like a brother,” says Sergio. “It’s a good brother because it’s yours. But like many brothers, you didn’t choose it. Like a brother, it might not be the best brother but the one you have. You have to preserve it and take care of it.” Some people, especially those in less developed parts of the world, feel a connection between themselves and the food they eat. Do you feel that way? Does modern life make it harder to be so connected?

8. The culinary historian Giovanni Rebora says to Laura, “We don’t worry so much about saving traditions. Traditions change all of the time. . . . We want to save the culture of food here.” What does he mean? Do you have any family traditions that have evolved over the years? What changes? What endures?

9. From Salvatore’s serenades to the final scenes of a tape of family members singing during holidays, music has an important place in the book. How does it relate to cooking and the act of storytelling?

10. In Italy Laura writes, “It amazes us the way nature and civilization intertwine here. We are envious of such a place—aware of the void we Americans have without lack of history and traditions. And yet, we know that too much tradition brings suffocation, and burdens.” How do you relate to the traditions you follow?

11. What is the role of religion and faith in the search for ravioli? Why does the book end with a Catholic confession? Does Laura think that forgiveness is possible?

12. The book ends with a question: “Could it be possible?” What is Laura referring to? In your opinion, was her quest and it’s many journeys successful? Did she find what she was looking for?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

One of the first things people always say to me after they read this book is that it’s about a lot more than just cooking.

And it’s true. In The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken, I’m not at all interested in telling you what I cooked for dinner so much as using food as a window to issues of family, history, and a sense of place. I’ve found that through food you can pretty much write about everything. In fact, I like to think that this book is a lot about love.

I set out on a quest to find a lost family recipe for ravioli, but along the way it became much more of a quest to find something beautiful I’d always yearned for, and to resolve some sad family history for myself. There were surprises to be had. I discovered my great grandmother Adalgiza, and her inspiring love story with my great grandfather Salvatore, both of whom came from one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. I also tried hard to be honest about family and not create a false, rosy picture of things.

One of the most amazing experiences in writing this book was the way people in Genoa, Italy, were so kind to me—a stranger—and opened their doors when I told them what I was after. The book recounts three trips to the Liguria region in search of my lost ravioli recipe. Each was a joy.

One great thing about modern life is the way the Internet has made it more possible for us to connect with people. Because of the Internet, ironically, I was able to reach out to all kinds of people in Italy and discover my pre-electronic origins. I was able to find people who would teach me and have experiences in Genoa that never would have been otherwise possible.

The Internet has also made it possible for me to connect with the many readers who have written to me passionately about what my book meant to them, and also tell me about their own family recipes and stories. So many people want to feel a connection to their roots—wherever they are—yet American life has become so fast-paced. I hope my book inspires people to slow down for a moment and think about history and food and what’s important in life. I am thrilled for the chance to talk to you directly and encourage the journey. Buon viaggio!

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by carol w. (see profile) 01/11/20

by Chris B. (see profile) 10/10/15

by Pam P. (see profile) 10/09/15

I couldn't get into the book and was making myself read it for our meeting

by Pauline H. (see profile) 10/08/15

Not a well-constructed story.

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