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Search for Authentic Ravioli Forges Family Bonds

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Search for Authentic Ravioli Forges Family Bonds

Food

Search for Authentic Ravioli Forges Family Bonds

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Laura Schenone had it all - an interesting career as an author, a wonderful family, a nice house in a New Jersey suburb - but something was missing, something savory, something delicious, something to connect her to her Italian immigrant ancestors - her life had no ravioli.

So Schenone decided to track down her great grandmother's ravioli recipe. Her search became an epic journey that took her across continents, into the kitchens of long lost relatives, and revealed a new meaning of authenticity.

Ms. LAURA SCHENONE (Author, "The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family"): I searched and searched for ravioli recipes. I went back to the 12th century to find the first Italian-published recipe, and when you study food history over time or over centuries, you really - there is no one authentic thing; that's not what authenticity is about. It's, you know, ingredients and traditions and stuff like that is always changing, so what you're - when you're looking for something that endures, it has to do about how the thing is used and what it means to people.

SEABROOK: Laura Schenone and I have taken over a corner of NPR's seventh floor coffee shop. She's brought a bunch of weird rolling pins, a giant wooden board, and pillows of floury dough. Schenone starts rolling it out as she tells me about her book, "The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken." It all started with another odd cooking implement.

Ms. SCHENONE: When I grew up, there was this ravioli tool that hung on the wall of our kitchen. It was this wooden grid, and it was just a relic, like antique thing. No one knew how to use it anymore, and I had some vague understanding that I had some ancestor from Italy who made ravioli. I did a little bit of research and I found out that ravioli from Genoa, where our family was from, was this food of happy times, this wonderful celebratory dish that you have for Christmas or someone's birthday or Easter or just bringing people together, and I decided this was going to be the recipe.

SEABROOK: What was going on in your life that made you seek this sort of - there must have been something that was pulling you towards family and tradition.

Ms. SCHENONE: There definitely was. I'm sure that it was a real midlife thing. You know, you reach a certain point in life and you start to wonder what's going to last. At the root of it, there's a real struggle in me about keeping a family together. What does it take to keep a family together? So this particular recipe actually came from my great grandmother who, as it turns out, was struggling to keep her family together. Her husband, like many Italian immigrants, came first, and the family story is that Adelgeza(ph) back in Italy got word that…

SEABROOK: Adelgeza?

Ms. SCHENONE: Adelgeza.

SEABROOK: That's her name?

Ms. SCHENONE: That was her name.

SEABROOK: Okay.

Ms. SCHENONE: Adelgeza - that she got word that her husband was fooling around in America, which, you know, he was there for many years working. And when she heard this, she got herself on a boat, brought the kids and went to America to go find him and keep her family together. I always found that inspiring and kind of romantic.

SEABROOK: Hmm, and strong.

Schenone sprinkles the board with flour and plops down a dough ball. She pushes out the edges a bit and then takes a long, wooden rolling pin, like a fat curtain rod, and starts to roll out the dough, but not in the normal way. Schenone is using a technique she learned on one of her trips to Italy from a 91-year-old woman named Jesapina(ph).

So you've rolled it on to the rolling pin like it's a window blind that's all the way up.

Ms. SCHENONE: Right.

SEABROOK: And you're taking your hands and pulling it out…

Ms. SCHENONE: Right.

SEABROOK: …towards the edges and stretch.

Ms. SCHENONE: Any - I'm telling you -, any of your listeners out there with Italian-American roots, the sound of this - you hear this flapping…

(Soundbite of dough flapping)

Ms. SCHENONE: This is the sound of Nona.

SEABROOK: How do you know that this recipe is the right recipe?

Ms. SCHENONE: Well, one of the first problems I had was I asked relatives to send it to me. And my father's 84-year-old cousin sent me this recipe card. And when I got it in the mail, I was so excited and thrilled and then I opened it up and to my shock, when read down the list of ingredients, there was a very surprising thing on it.

SEABROOK: What?

Ms. SCHENONE: And I blinked.

SEABROOK: Okay. Let me guess.

Ms. SCHENONE: You can't guess.

SEABROOK: Canned tomatoes or something?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHENONE: Yeah, no. No. An eight-ounce package of cream cheese.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHENONE: And I said, no. This can't be right.

SEABROOK: That is such a - turn of the century Italian.

Ms. SCHENONE: No. This can't be right. So I immediately wrote my cousin and said you meant ricotta, right?. She said, no, I meant cream cheese, and it was then that I knew that I had set off on this journey to find out what was the original, and I did. It turns out that there is a cheese that's just very distinctive to Genoa; in fact, there is not a classic Italian word for it. It's just a dialect where it's called presentiwa(ph).

SEABROOK: Wow.

Ms. SCHENONE: I couldn't even say it for a year.

But I did find out how to make it - the original presentiwa. I went to the top of a mountain town where they make it still, and I learned how to make it.

SEABROOK: Wow.

Ms. SCHENONE: I went into the - I got fairly obsessed; I went to all kinds of ends for this. And I came home and I took my lesson home and made the cheese, you know, it sat on my - fresh cheese just sits on your counter with rennet for 24 hours and I strained it. And I taste it, and I thought, gosh, this tastes like cream cheese.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: So now you make it with the cream cheese, huh?

Ms. SCHENONE: Occasionally. Actually, my father got really a little annoyed at my, you know, my fussing with his grandmother's recipe, like this being the nerd, you know, kind of over thinking it, you know? What he would call authentic was his Hoboken recipe.

SEABROOK: Now, this ravioli you're making…

Ms. SCHENONE: Right now what am I doing? You want to know what I'm doing?

SEABROOK: Yeah. I want to know what you're doing.

Ms. SCHENONE: Okay. I made this giant piece of dough - about three feet. Not as giant as Aunt Adelgeza.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHENONE: Two-and-a-half - three feet. I fold it in half just to get a mid line, and then I'm plopping down some cheese. And I'm just spreading it out over half of my circle, so now I've got it over half.

SEABROOK: Oh, you're going use the special rolling pin.

Ms. SCHENONE: I've got my special rolling pin. My…

SEABROOK: Okay, I need to describe this rolling pin. It's like a rolling pin that's had, like, notches carved out of it.

Ms. SCHENONE: Squares.

SEABROOK: Squares carved in that…

Ms. SCHENONE: Ravioli squares.

SEABROOK: Yeah. So I guess if you rolled this over the ravioli, then it makes little squares for raviolis.

Ms. SCHENONE: That's right. So what I'm going to do is roll and press to create my grid.

SEABROOK: Let me get that out of your way.

Schenone rolls out dozens of little ravioli, slices them apart and carefully, carefully pulls each perfect little package apart. She handles them like they're extremely fragile and important things. Then she slips them into a pot of boiling water. A few minutes and a dollop of home-made sauce later…

SEABROOK: Hmm. It's so much more complex a taste than I'm used to ravioli being.

Ms. SCHENONE: How so? The pasta? The filling?

SEABROOK: The pasta is softer.

Ms. SCHENONE: Mm-hmm.

SEABROOK: It's almost kind of melty.

Ms. SCHENONE: That's exactly what it's supposed to be.

SEABROOK: Got a little spring in the bite.

Ms. SCHENONE: Exactly.

SEABROOK: Oh, good.

Ms. SCHENONE: You get it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: So what do you get out of this ravioli? What do you come to in the end when you're searching for this coming together of your family?

Ms. SCHENONE: Well, there's a whole other parallel story in the book where I do explore the family story. You know, cooking is so much like family life. You want it to come out beautiful and perfect and you have these dreams, but it doesn't always come out that way, but you do your best. And I didn't tie it up in a neat knot at the end. There were some sad things that happened in my family and I did retell the stories, and part of the retelling that came with searching for the ravioli is how you come to some acceptance of it. I guess a lot of it really - there is a theme in the book about love and the hope we have for love, and I guess the ravioli are my hopes.

SEABROOK: It seems like ravioli is something you don't do alone.

Ms. SCHENONE: Oh, I think that's from the first lines in my book. You're not supposed to make ravioli alone. No. And it's this hope to bring people together around family for that happy time.

SEABROOK: Laura Schenone, thank you so much for cooking and talking with us.

Ms. SCHENONE: It was my pleasure.

SEABROOK: More on ravioli at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

Food, the holidays, Italy - these bring us to our parting words tonight. This quote is not from some historical source; it was said today by Pope Benedict XVI. Speaking of the holidays, the pope said, adolescents, youths, and even children, are easy victims of the corruption of love deceived by unscrupulous adults who, lying to themselves and to them, draw them into the dead-end streets of consumerism.

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

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