The food memoir seemingly pops out everywhere these days. It’s the hot new genre in writing. Some authors coin a phrase and tell a story better than others. Most bog down the reader right away, with dramatic and overwritten accounts of trauma suffered in the kitchen or in love, unwrapping personal anecdotes best kept tightly coffined in foil like a rotten fish ready for the garbage.
So M. F. K. Fisher they’re usually not. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me set the bar, and raised the standard for food writers forever. And A. J. Liebling didn’t help, either, because his Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris taunts modern food writers with a perfection that few ever achieve.
The problem with the “new” genre of “food memoir” remains simple: almost all of these concern themselves with the author alone. A sense of place and time and history fails to materialize. And hence the universal element that allows the reader to identify with the mean grandmother chasing the author out of the kitchen simply isn’t there. About halfway through the book, the reader hangs it up. The book goes on the shelf, gathering dust until the next trip to the Thrift Shop or the Friends of the Library book sale.
Thus I took my time seeking out a copy of Laura Schenone’s food memoir, The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family. In Schenone’s favor was her James Beard Award-winning work, A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances. Stung in the pocketbook more than once by forking out good money for food memoirs the literary equivalent of micro-waved pizza, I first checked Schenone’s new book out of my local public library.
On a cold February night, a white down comforter spread out over me like a marshmallow cloud, I angled my reading light just so (like an interrogator in a Raymond Chandler novel?), and opened the hardcover book. It began with a prologue, written in a style rather different for a food memoir, the language of magical realism seeping from the page:
I wanted to know the stories, so I turned to her. One night, she told this one that comes from the old era, when magic was still in the stories — not just words words words. She told me when we were cooking side by side in the kitchen (the place where she often whispers to me). Or perhaps she told it to me before I was born, or when I was still a baby, and all the world’s sounds were still flowing together in a sea that holds past and present lives. It was the story that explained how we came to be, the story I needed most.
And those words hooked me, drew me in, as did the allusion to her Ligurian grandparents — Salvatore and Adalgiza — and what they gave up to find prosperity in the New World. For the next two days, I experienced Schenone’s attempts to make ravioli, recapture the sense of a family riven with feuds, find the places in Liguria where her family’s recipes might have originated, accept the challenges of a sister on a different trajectory, and come to grips with a multitude of other so-called familial sins. Along the way, Schenone’s trips to Italy and her strong sense of past and place kept the story moving away from her and toward that elusive quality of universality so lacking in so many food memoirs.
In Schenone’s hands, food becomes a metaphor for lost family history, for community and belonging, for love, for everything human. She ends the book with a section on the recipes she found, and she provides food historians with a detailed methodology for discovering the roots of recipes. But the real message of Raviolis lies in this paragraph, the one before the last words in the text:
Most of us want to pass on something of ourselves. After we are invisible and gone from this world, we hope to leave behind something that is not full of mirrors — something real and enduring, something true. It may be a recipe for ravioli, the dish of happy times. It may be a song, or a voice that might be heard in the future.
And with those words, well, that is why Laura Schenone hits the high note — she’s a food writer who’s more than a food writer, a writer, no, a poet who writes about life and death and all the things in between. Her story prods our innate desire to know where we come from, where we’re going, what we’re here for. Especially Americans like me with tangled roots in their sprawling family trees, yearning for home.
When I finished The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken, I closed the book, and lay quietly in my bed, looking up at the ceiling, trying not to weep. Why? Because like beautiful music touching a memory, The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken brought my own family to life and reminded me of how so much ends up lost before it is found.
The very next day, I bought a copy of The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken and placed it on the shelf, right up there with M. F. K. Fisher and A. J. Liebling.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen