What’s Your Ravioli?
Email subject line: “Xmas dinner positively sucked.”
Ah yes, Christmas 2008, our first holiday season abroad. I remember it was bad, but a scan of my email archives confirmed how bad. It sucked. Positively.
December in South Africa is beautiful, of course: summer vacation, barbecues, long swimsuit-and-slushie afternoons. Beautiful—but for us, not traditional. In the weeks prior to Christmas that first year, I unpacked our box of decorations (still sealed in packing tape from the move) and hauled out strands of tree lights, paper snowflakes, and sparkly icicles. The lights went straight back into storage: wrong voltage and no need for lights with the sun blazing into the evening. And while the snow-and-icicle motif clashed with our flipflops and bellowing floor-fan, we hung them nonetheless—on our shrub-sized PVC tree, the only Christmas tree I could find.
As temperatures crept higher and kids traipsed through the sprinkler, my thoughts turned to Christmas dinner. Fresh mango sounded good, as did watermelon, iced tea, and cucumber sandwiches. But this was Christmas after all, so off I went to the grocery store. Bypassing picnic displays, I searched for turkey, cranberries, and sweet potatoes. I came away with yams, a miniature jar of imported cranberry sauce, and a wad of turkey-like substance the size of a football.
You know how it all turned out.
My boys were young in 2008 — the twins had just turned three and Thomas was four. They sat at our semi-festive table for approximately 30 seconds, ate nothing, then raced back to the sprinkler. Only my husband and I remained, picking at dry, prefab turkey. Despite the spectacular weather and many other reasons to be thankful, I felt adrift. No twinkling lights, no scrumptious meal, no close friends or relatives. In short, no tradition to tether me to family history—to the family story—the story we create and re-tell, especially during the holidays.
In her memoir, The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken, Laura Schenone plumbs the notion of food and family tradition. She asks questions I asked myself in Cape Town in 2008. Can tradition be transplanted across oceans, seasons, and generations? Can immigrant and expat families uphold tradition when surrounded by vastly different foods and cultures? What, in the end, makes tradition so meaningful?
Descended from immigrants of many countries, Schenone feels most drawn to her Italian origins. She loves food she “was never fed, yet craved nonetheless,” chestnuts, anchovies, and olives; she inherited her great-grandmother’s ravioli press and her penchant for traditional Christmas ravioli. Not satisfied with hand-me-down Americanized recipes, Schenone embarks on a quest for authenticity, to create the true ravioli of her ancestors. She travels back and forth to Genoa, rolls and re-rolls pasta late into the night, and grows Italian herbs in her New Jersey garden. Though neither she nor her husband fully understand this obsession, Schenone senses a need to find her place as a mother, partner, and great-granddaughter, as a woman in a tangled and sometimes broken family lineage. She believes that the old recipe—the real, authentic recipe—will provide a link.
Finding your “ravioli” is no small task, however, especially for families grown from many cultural roots. We have returned home to Canada, but my boys, now second- and third-graders, have spent most of their lives in South Africa. They’re Canadians with French, English, South African and Welsh heritage. And every Christmas Day that they remember has been bright, hot, and capped with icy juice and a swim.
So I wonder, this first year back in Canada, as I wondered that first year in South Africa, what is our family tradition? What customs and recipes will my kids pass down to theirs? Do we have a ravioli?
We do. Sort of.
When I was very young, maybe five, my mother taught me to roll pastry with a wooden pin, to lift it from the floured surface, and crimp the borders, just as she learned from her mom and just as I’ve taught my son Jon. My mother baked pies with that pastry: apple pies stacked with chunks of McIntosh; lemon pies topped with caramelized meringue; and every Christmas eve, French Canadian tourtiere with beef, pork, and cloves. Just as her mother had baked, and just as I…. well, here things get complicated.
I do make pie several times a year. I think of my mother as I flute the pastry with two thumbs, but no ancestral rolling pin, no great-great-grandmother’s pie plate hangs from my kitchen wall. And while I often check my mother’s hand-written recipes for apple pie, lemon meringue, and tourtiere, all safely stored in a black leather binder, I don’t always heed them.
For our second Christmas in South Africa, I revamped my mother’s tourtiere to suit local ingredients and weather. I kept the cloves but exchanged the beef and pork for a lighter and indigenous meat, ostrich. The result was delicious and perhaps a first: Capetonian-Quebecois Christmas pie. We baked pie for dessert, too –lemon, but not quite like my mother’s. This pie distilled the juice and rind of seven fresh lemons into the taste equivalent of a backyard pool-plunge. Utterly summer—utterly festive, Christmasy summer.
These two recipes, ostrich tourtiere and lemon pool-plunge, became holiday staples over our years in South Africa. The zing of shredded citrus and mellow scent of clove and ostrich blended with the swish of sprinklers, end of school year, and crumpled paper snowflakes on our PVC tree. Will these pies suit a frosty Christmas Day in Canada? Not likely. Are they authentic? Who knows? Are they traditional? I have to say yes. In fact, I’m relieved to say yes.
As Laura Schenone came to accept, tradition lies not in painstaking replication but in graceful adaptation to a time and a place. Had we moved to another part of the world, the far north or Eastern Europe, had we stayed in Canada, I may have tweaked those old recipes nonetheless, not to improve them but to add ourselves to the story. It’s almost a coming-of-age for mothers to see ourselves and our families as a new incarnation of something very old. Yes, we perpetuate a history, we gratefully borrow, learn and share, but like a fresh taste added to a time-honored recipe, the blend of genes and circumstance that creates our children and our motherhood is unique. And reason to celebrate.
Reader-mamas, what’s your ravioli? Do you have a recipe that holds special meaning, one that has been handed down, tweaked or faithfully preserved over generations? What food is synonymous with family tradition in your home?
6 replies on “What’s Your Ravioli?”
Dear Katherine….I am an OLD (in more ways than one) of your mother’s I know of some of your ” coping” techniques while in S.A ……You write from your heart with feeling….and knowing your Mom….the proverbial apple does NOT fall far from the tree.
Another adjustment back to the Canadian way of spending Xmas…..it will be WONDERFUL!!!!! And the turkey also…..Have a blessed one
Such a lovely post!
It has been a tough weekend of bad news and my heart breaks for the victims in this recent senseless brutality :(
What a nice post, thanks for sharing! Sometimes we do things each year traditionally and never give it much thought! Our family always had stuffed grape leaves during the holidays. In the summer we would pick the leaves and preserve them and feast out during the holidays.
I continued this tradition after moving away from my family however I started to search for a way to improve the recipe and understand the origins of this dish.
Dolma is the accurate term for what we used to refer to as “cigars”… we called them that because they looked like big rolled cigars lol. And while these are of Greek or Lebanese origin from what I can find… our family is French/Native so I have no idea how this tradition ever came to be in our family!!
I tweaked the recipe and in the end came up with a dish that satisfied our desire for better but allowed tradition to continue.
They take a long time to roll. I make a huge roaster full. Ground beef, rice, onion, dill, mint, salt, pepper and I add tomato juice (as in keeping with my family recipe).
Each time I sit by myself or with my husband and kids rolling our “cigars” I can’t help but remember the many years that I did this same tradition with my grandmother and parents,
The smells and tastes of our traditional foods can often bring to life memories of childhood better than anything!
Some recipes are still so great that they are not worth tweaking such as my grandmothers “magic square” recipe… Graham crumbs, butter, sweetened condensed milk, chocolate chips, walnuts and sweetened coconut… sinfully delicious and terrible high in calories! ;-)
Have a merry Christmas!!!
Beautifully put Katherine. I’m definitely also on a search for my own ravioli! My experience is a bit different though. For much of my adult life Christmas has been a time to return to my parent’s home and a time to politely refuse their non-vegetarian food traditions: roast turkey with bacon crisped on top, ground beef and sage stuffing, rich turkey gravy and slivers of salty country ham on buttermilk biscuits. For over 20 years my refusal to consume these food items at their table has been viewed by them as an assault on their value system and a form of rebellion. Of course there are favorite standard vegetarian dishes at their table that I consume with gusto: mashed potatoes, peas, cranberry relish, and the desserts! Still, the fact that my husband, daughter and I pass certain platters without taking a serving is upsetting to my parents. Last year was the first year that I did not return to their home for the holidays. I worked hard, however, as I will this year, to return to their traditions with my own twist. The basic mashed potatoes and cranberry relish – yep, on the menu. And I’ve collected all the family holiday dessert recipes and plan to bake up at least 3 different offerings for Christmas this year. New to the table, though, is a friend’s recipe for a vegetarian sage stuffing, and my own vegetarian gravy recipe made of tomatillos and herbs from our garden. A cheese and veggie stuffed pumpkin will be the centerpiece. Maybe one of these dishes will sing out “ravioli” to me this year, and I’ll know that even though I’m 1200 miles away I’ve made it home.
This is lovely, Katherine. I especially love this line: “I may have tweaked those old recipes nonetheless, not to improve them but to add ourselves to the story.” I love that idea of inserting yourselves into the story.
A newish tradition for us (because of divorced parents and many different places we need to be over the holidays) is to make a white bean chicken chili Christmas night. We spend the day before split between my husband’s family and my mom. Then Christmas late morning and day with my dad. After an afternoon movie, my sisters and their families and my dad all come over for our steamy crock pot. It may not seem like holiday food, but it’s become that to us.
Thank you for your wonderful “ravioli” suggestions. They sound delicious. I hope all of them — dolmas, stuffed pumpkin, and white bean chili — turned out beautifully!