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What is it about this time of year that makes us look back and wonder?

What was the most important event of the year? Best song of the year? Favourite movie? Biggest discovery? It goes and on. In the days before the new year makes itself known, it seems we spend endless time evaluating the year that was.

Myself, I don’t really like to do that. This is partly because I have always viewed the new year with a mixture of both excitement and trepidation. Perhaps, when I was younger, I was a bit more optimistic but as the years go by, and life reveals itself both good and bad, I can’t help but feel both happy and anxious at this time of year.

What does the future hold?

Who knows.

Probably the only exception to this is books, and more specifically, cookbooks. Because they are my greatest pleasure, I seem to have no qualms in looking back. At the beginning of the month, I had a 12-day series highlighting my 12 favourite cookbooks of the year. But what I left out was the book that was, in fact, my absolute favourite of 2009.

While it wasn’t written in 2009, I was lucky enough to receive a copy and even luckier to read it.

The book I’m talking about is Laura Schenone’s The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family.

Of all the books that I read in 2009, cookbooks included, this was my very favourite one.

I read it in early October, not long after I had returned from my trip to Italy.

Maybe it was the fact that I was missing my Italian family. Or maybe it was the fact that I was missing the food that my Italian family cooks. Whatever it was, from almost the very beginning, this book struck a deep chord with me.

Schenone’s book is primarily about her endeavour to discover the origin of her family’s beloved ravioli recipe. The deep need she has to uncover this recipe puts her on a road that takes her to Italy, but far more importantly and far closer to home, it takes her through the neighbourhood we all know as “family”.

Unabashedly, honestly and lovingly, Schenone tells us the story of her Italian-American family’s life in a new country, including the triumphs and pitfalls. I was struck at how open she was in her book and how she laid bare not just the good times, but the bad as well.

But I was most struck by how eloquently Schenone captures the reality of the immigrant experience.

We tend to romanticize the past. In my own family, as a first-generation Canadian, I can look around quite happily and say that we’re a success. My parents bought a home, built a business, acquired all the modern comforts and are really nice people to boot. The same goes for my aunts and uncles and for my grandparents, the first to immigrate to Canada.

What is not so visible is the struggle. The harshness. The pain. The hard work. The alienation. The adults in my family kept that from us when we were children. But now that I’m grown, and privy to the real history of my family, I see that my grandparents and parents had plenty of suffering mixed in with the success.

Schenone captures all of this in a way that is compelling and sometimes, hard to read. It’s like witnessing a difficult scene in real life. Just as you want to look away then, there are times I wanted to avert my eyes from the page because the emotion was so palpable.

And just as in life, in the midst of the challenges, there are successes and newfound joys. I especially loved reading about Schenone’s trips to Italy and how she made so many friends and learned so much there.

Mostly, though, I loved reading about her singular, intense and passionate drive to perfect pasta and ravioli. Just brilliant. I love how she reveals herself in her book. How she very honestly shows herself in transition in the midst of her life and how that affects not just her, but her children, her spouse and her extended family.

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This treasure of a book came to mind again during the Christmas season. For Christmas Day, my mother made her pasta recipe and then made ravioli. They are not really based on anyone else’s ravioli recipe but rather are a Mamma Cream Puff original (my mom rocks the house!).

I didn’t help my mom much this year. We had a very small gathering on Christmas Day so she had everything under control.

Instead, I watched her from afar. And at one point, I saw her working away and noticed her ravioli press and rolling pin on the counter. I suddenly thought of Schenone’s book and realized that this is my little legacy. That little press and rolling pin, the fresh pasta, and my mom in the kitchen, they all came together in a snapshot that is frozen in me.

I don’t know what 2010 holds. I hope it holds health and good food and happy family and some nice surprises. And beyond that, who knows.

All I know is that I hope I never ever forget, in any of the years ahead, that picture of my mom making ravioli.

Ciao!

I will always say that my mom’s fresh pasta recipe is the best. Here it is.

I sincerely hope you will pick up a copy of Laura Schenone’s The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family. It is worth it in every way.