ust the name, The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken, peaks my interest and makes my mouth water. But Laura Schenone isn’t a flash in the pan—she’s a finely crafted author with a tremendous amount of determination. Yes, her books are about food and include scrumptious recipes, but they also provide more than your standard fare and delight even the most literary palate.
Laura Schenone was born and raised in New Jersey to a working- class family who were not readers. But her mom made sure she took her children to the library and bought some classic books, hoping that someone would read them. And it worked. Laura fell in love with books and decided at the age of twelve to become a writer. For many years, she wanted to be a fiction writer, but found it extremely hard to carve a path for herself. Then, when she was around thirty, she fell in love with food and got the idea for her first book, which took nearly ten years to write amidst having two children and working as a freelance writer. That book A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A history of American women told through food, recipes, and remembrances won a James Beard award. Now, she has a second book out, The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken. She also writes for magazines and newspapers.
Join us as we dish writing with Laura Schenone, a remarkable woman with a ton of determination.
WOW: Before your latest book, you wrote a history book about the influence of food in American women’s lives A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, which won the 2004 James Beard Foundation Award for Food and Reference Writing. What a huge undertaking! Now, you’ve written something more personal—a food memoir—The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken.
Was there an epiphany, or moment, that prompted the decision to write your own story?
Laura: No, there was no single moment, but rather a voice that had been inside my head all of my life. After I did one book that was a social history, I felt like I sort of earned the chance to write my own story. I understood better where my place was in history.
WOW: Yes, you sure did! In fact, both books required an extensive amount of historical research, which doesn’t come naturally to most writers; yet, you have a real gift for searching out details. Where did you learn this craft, or are you just naturally brilliant?
Laura: Not naturally brilliant—I wish, life would be easier—but naturally a question asker. That just seems to be the way I was born.
"I felt like I sort of earned the chance to write my own story."
WOW: (laughs) Well, that’s sure true! Publishers Weekly said that you have a "fierce honesty" and a style of "relentless questioning" in The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken. They also said that you had a "refusal to romanticize Italy," which brings me to my next question.
Your book begins with your memory of an old, handcrafted, wooden ravioli press, which hung on the wall of your mother’s kitchen as a decoration. From there you set out on a journey to find the original antique recipe, and your family’s history. This leads you to one of Italy’s smallest regions, Liguria, a narrow ribbon that stretches west along the coast of France. This must have been an amazing trip! Was this your first visit there?
Laura: I was a Francophile as a young woman—and learned French quite well. I went to Italy at age 21, but didn’t make a great many connections. I explain in my book how I am not singularly Italian (I am an American mutt) and how I resisted the Italian parts of my heritage for various reasons. So at 21, I appreciated Italy and thought it was great, but I did not feel any big connection.
When I went back at 40 in search of the recipes, I still didn’t fall in love. Perhaps I was beyond that kind of rapture. It was really a much slower thing that had to do with studying Italian language and going to a deeper level of knowing a place and perhaps discovering my own "Italianness" as I went. It was on my second trip, when it was freezing cold winter weather—not what Americans consider "typical" Italy—when I really fell in love. I met people who were so kind to me and willing to share old recipes with me because they want to save their own heritage, and perhaps because they could tell I was sincere. Also, I have a Genoese last name. I began to discover my own Italianness over time. And, of course, the beauty of the place, particularly the rugged mountains beyond the Riviera.
"I researched images online of places I had been to help jog my memory and experiences."
WOW: That sounds wonderful. But one of the things I know from traveling, is that it can be frustrating to find an Internet connection, especially in remote areas. How did you record your journey?
Laura: I kept notebooks. A different color for every journey—there were three journeys for this book. I wrote down everything. Photographs helped a great deal, as well, when I was later trying to write. But also, back at home, I researched images online of places I had been to help jog my memory and experiences.
WOW: That’s an excellent idea, and I use that method too for some of my freelance writing. I also know you do quite a bit of freelancing and have for some time. Since many of our readers are freelancers, I’m sure they’d love to know how you got your first freelance gig!
Laura: I had a very scrappy way about me and still do. The same qualities that make you a good freelancer make you a good researcher and reporter. You use every lead and every connection. Sometimes you bluff your way into places. But in my young freelance life, I did a lot of nonprofit writing to help support my creative—i.e. nonpaying—work. I actually got a very meaningful steady freelance gig (lasted five years) by answering an ad in the New York Times. Of course, I probably answered hundreds. I also wrote freelance articles for the Jersey section of the New York Times when I was in my twenties. I got in there by bluffing when a change in editors occurred. I sort of acted like I had been part of the old guard—like I had already been writing there—and convinced the new editor to take a story. It was a good story, though, and that’s why he took it more than anything else.
"The same qualities that make you a good freelancer make you a good researcher and reporter."
WOW: (laughs) Laura, that’s too funny! I’ll have to remember that one if I ever find myself in that situation. So, do you have any other tips that our freelance women writers should know?
Laura: If a woman wants to have a family and children, it will mean a very different thing for her to be a writer than it does for most men who are fathers. It will be harder because you are choosing a risky career. And if you are doing creative work—it will be hard to turn away from kids who really need you, in order to write your own story. You have to have a certain amount of selfishness to do that. You also need a husband who will believe in you. Mine does. I highly recommend it. But everyone has to find her own way.
WOW: Having that support is fantastic. It’s even more needed when you set out to take on a monumental project, such as your first book, A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove. Since that was a nonfiction book, did you write a book proposal to submit to agents/editors?
Laura: It took me at least a year to write the proposal. Then it took me a year to get an agent. Part of this was because I had a baby in the middle of all this and also moved to another state for my husband’s work. Once I had an agent, it took her nearly a year to sell the project. She tried first with a trial submission to four editors. They were afraid of it because it was heavily illustrated (expensive production) and I was writing a women’s history book without being a historian. When it didn’t sell quickly, my agent rightly advised me to rework the proposal. This took some time. But the next time it went out, it got more than one offer.
"They were afraid of it… I was writing a women’s history book without being a historian."
WOW: So, after your proposal was accepted, what happened next?
Laura: It took forever to get a contract and get the advance (typical)! And I began working. I completely overcompensated for my lack of a PhD by spending years in the library and reading everything. I also went out and interviewed living women for their memories of old recipes and food ways. This was very important because a lot of women’s history and especially domestic history and cooking—never gets written down. I worked hard at finding native women who would talk to me. And I also did some traveling to places like South Carolina where I could cook with Gullah women and go to plantation houses to see what they were like. Meanwhile, I researched one hundred historical images from library archives all over the country (much of it—but not all of it—online). Also, I wanted the book to be well written, so after reams of research, I wrote and rewrote and wrote again. As I write this, I can hardly believe I did it all.
WOW: You should be very, very proud. You did a wonderful thing for women everywhere by recording this history. So, from start to finish, how long did it take until you finally saw it in print?
Laura: From the first moment of inspiration to the finished book took ten years.
This was very important because a lot of women’s history and especially domestic history and cooking—never gets written down.
WOW: That’s what I call determination! And the topping on the cake had to be when you found out that you’d won the James Beard Foundation Award. Congratulations! How did it feel when you found out?
Laura: It was a joy and a shock. I never expected it. I was mostly glad for my husband and family, who did without a lot of stuff—my time and income—while I worked on this book for so many years. I somehow felt like the honor made it all seem worth it.
WOW: In The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken you search for purity in a recipe untouched by modern technology and Americanized ingredients, and the theme of redemption and beauty seems to be a thread in your books: "I’m not satisfied with the history I have, and I want to rewrite it. I want something beautiful from this beautiful place, something that can redeem me."
As writers, we know that "theme" is the hardest thing to pinpoint, and, most often, only revealed after we write the book. Do you purposefully incorporate themes into your writing, or do you make connections as you go along?
Laura: Both. There’s a glimmer of it, as you begin. But you only understand this after you get inside a deep place. Writing is like meditation. You need to sit and sit in silence so you can become aware.
WOW: That’s so true. But I bet it also has to do a lot with editing—cutting parts to make chapters and sections flow together. Can you recommend any editing techniques to our aspiring authors that you personally use?
Laura: I rewrite a great deal and edit myself constantly. I wish I didn’t. But I’m just relentless. I think my style is to write everything out as I know it and understand it. Then to cut back to the bare bone so I can find the parts that glow. I hate repetitions and try so hard to say what I mean only once. Beginning writers try to swipe at any idea many times. But you’ve really got to cut a thing down so you say it once and get it really right. This takes a lot of time.
"Writing is like meditation. You need to sit and sit in silence so you can become aware."
WOW: I can see that. So, how was writing this memoir different from writing your first book?
Laura: In my first book, I felt very proud to be resurrecting and giving space to women’s voices from history. But for this book I felt not at all "proud." Rather, it is very, very embarrassing to write a personal memoir. To do it, you can’t look up; otherwise you’ll never go back in. When I was done, I felt, and to some extent, still do, feel quite exposed. But I still know that this is what I had to do so I’m okay. In this book, there was some messy stuff to deal with about my family. This was also very hard.
WOW: Your books come from a real passion that is an eternal thread throughout the history of women’s lives: food and all the aspects that come with it—from growing, preparation, and serving, to nurturing, tradition, and culture. In a sense, it’s a way of defining our roots as women. What do you ultimately hope that readers will gain from your books?
Laura: I suppose I had a certain mission, especially in the first book, to say that cooking and domesticity are a part of history, just as important as wars and politics that get so much more attention. In my second book, there is some of this, as well. I like giving readers the truth about history, as best as I can figure, and dispelling myths. But really, I’m not sure that I write to give my readers any specific messages. I write to answer questions I have inside myself. Readers will all bring their own meanings. But ultimately, I would like to give them some hope I suppose, because that’s what books are for.
"I write to answer questions I have inside myself. Readers will all bring their own meanings."
WOW: You also love to cook, and really fell in love with food when you and your hubby moved into a pre-Civil War farmhouse in central New Jersey and you started a vegetable garden. It sounds so romantic, and also, the perfect setting to write. How did you set up your workspace, and what was your writing schedule like?
Laura: Now I live closer to the city, and I’ve got two kids. Back then, I could write whenever I wanted because I had a lot more time. I don’t think romantic settings really make a difference. I need quiet and organization. I write during the day when my kids are in school. It’s hard for me to get cracking in the morning because I seem to need a lot of start up time. I often wind up going back to my office at night—late at night. As to the workspace, I’ve always had some kind of an office with a door.
"I need quiet and organization. I write during the day when my kids are in school."
WOW: Laura, you’re a fascinating interviewee and author. I’ve only touched on a few questions I wanted to ask you today, so you’ll have to come back and visit us again! So, on the author-platform side, you’re out promoting The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken at various venues, such as bookstores, art festivals, and restaurants. I’d love to know how these totally different events have worked for you.
Laura: It’s always best to get media when you can reach the most people—and that’s national media. But recently, I did a wonderful event at the Philadelphia First Person Arts Festival where I demonstrated ravioli and told stories from the book at the same time. It felt like performance art. There were about 60 people who came to watch and then eat later. It was a very warm group. And many people came because they had relatives from the same region in Italy. One guy even had the same last name. I really liked the warmth of that crowd. Perhaps it was because of the food.
WOW: Food is always good in a crowd, but I’m sure it was ultimately your storytelling that made it a winning combination. So, Laura, what’s next in the works for you?
Laura: I’m starting a wonderful new blog with my friend who is a fine artist. It’s called Eat Think Cook (www.eatthinkcook), and it’s about old recipes and modern life. My partner does absolutely beautiful paintings of food—so it’s gorgeous to look at. And I’ll be posting a recipe from history every week. We’ll also answer questions people have about old recipes and toss out lots of ideas and attitude. You can sign up for a monthly mailing at my website: www.lostravioli.com.
WOW: I will certainly do that! Thank you Laura for fascinating interview. Both of your books sound like the perfect holiday gift for any woman who loves to cook and read.
To find out more about Laura Schenone and her fabulous recipes, visit:
Eat Think Cook: http://www.eatthinkcook.com
Laura’s Website: http://www.lostravioli.com