How to be a Person in the World and Agnolotti

“You get older, and, contrary to popular wisdom, things do get much harder. Popular wisdom is usually complete horseshit in fact. Mostly it’s designed to keep us from freaking out about how bleak everything actually is.” – How to be a Person in the World

Patton Oswalt describes Heather Havrilesky as a writer “who can dish out tangy snark but never fails to aim the knife back at her own damaged, hilarious heart.” How to be a Person in the World is testament to her sensitive, no-nonsense approach to life. Havrilesky writes an advice column for New York Magazine called “Ask Polly” and How to be a Person in the World is a collection of some of her published and unpublished material for the column. 

The book is divided into seven sections in which letters to Havrilesky are displayed according to subject. People write in requesting advice on dealing with problems that include personal flaws, relationship issues, dilemmas in the work place and uncertainty about the future. Havrilesky’s replies do not shy away from taking a stand. She understands that the modern world is complex, that her readers need firm answers in order to face what distresses them.

While Havrilesky is sometimes harsh, she is compassionate and emphatic in promoting loving oneself and others. In the final piece of the book, ‘The Bean Eaters’, the person seeking advice is struggling to deal with the misfortunes that have befallen the parents of a friend. Havrilesky ends her reply: “Stop trying to make sense of this. You can’t think your way through this. Open your heart and drink in this glorious day. You are young, and you will find little things that will make you grateful to be alive.” 

I discovered Havrilesky’s column in November and have been hooked since. Her candid advice is a breath of fresh air in the face of seemingly insurmountable situations. I finished How to be a Person in the World over the Christmas period during which I helped my mother make agnolotti, a type of fresh pasta from Piemonte in Italy. Agnolotti are made from dough that has been filled with roast meat and other ingredients. My mother serves them with a sauce made from tomato, olive oil and fried sausage meat. She also dusts them generously in parmiggiano. Eaten for lunch with a glass of red wine the January blues seem like a distant memory.

Agnolotti (makes 150)

Pasta filling


350g roast meat (minced)

150g cooked sausage meat

a handful of cooked rice (preferably Arborio)

finely chopped parsley and a clove of garlic

150g shredded spinach

a generous handful of parmiggiano

2 eggs

salt and pepper to taste


In a bowl, mix the meats and rice. Lightly fry the parsley and garlic in butter in a pan. Add the shredded spinach, mixing well. When cooked add the contents of the pan to the bowl. Leave to cool then mix in the eggs, parmiggiano, salt and pepper.

Pasta dough


450g flour

3 eggs

luke warm water if necessary


Make a mountain of the flour and excavate a shallow hole in its top. Add the eggs to the hole one at a time and mix by hand. If the dough does not hold together, add water until it does. Knead the dough for 15 minutes, wrap it in cling film and leave to rest for 30 minutes. When it has rested, divide it up and pass it through a pasta machine making sure the strips of dough are not too thin. Place a strip of dough in a mould dusted in flour. Fill each crevice with a teaspoonful of the filling and cover with another strip of dough. Pass a rolling pin over it to properly seal the pasta parcels. Remove from the mould and divide the parcels up using a cutter with crimped edges (NB this can also be done without the mould, only using the cutter). Repeat until there is no dough left. Cook the agnolotti in salted boiling water. They are ready when they float to the surface.


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