Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Remembering Marcella Hazan

Born: 1924, Cesenatico, Emilia-Romanga, Italy
Died: 2013, Longboat Key, Florida, United States

Marcella Hazan, who died on September 29, 2013, did for Italian cooking what Julia Child had done for French cooking a decade earlier: made it accessible to North American home cooks. Also like Julia Child, she did not cook before she was married and moved to a different continent, although in opposite directions. While Julia Child famously went to Paris, Marcella Hazan moved with her American husband, to New York.

My introduction to Marcella Hazan, came via the magazine, Mademoiselle, circa 1973. Also published by Conde Nast, the magazine was sort of a Vogue, junior, not a publication you would think of immediately if you were looking for a place to read about food. However, the managing editor, Mary Cantwell, wrote a food column called Eat.  She had been married to the literary agent Robert Lescher whose stable of writers included Robert Frost and Isaac Bashevis Singer. He also worked with Alice B. Toklas, M.F.K. Fisher…and Marcella Hazan whose Classic Italian Cooking was newly released

By the time I finally bought and used Classic Italian Cooking, I had cooked my way through both volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  While Julia Child made me a more serious cook, I think Marcella Hazan made me a better cook.  With her science background—her education was in natural science and biology—she could not only tell you what to do but what would happen if you did it a different way. She was a first rate teacher, giving classes both in the United States and at the Hazan’s second home in Venice.

The recipes themselves often looked very simple with few ingredients yet the flavours were always intense and satisfying. Seasonality was Marcella’s creed, long before the word was on everyone’s lips. She advocated the use of both fresh and dried pastas; Signature dishes included pork braise in milk and chicken roasted with lemon halves in the cavity.  After eating a meal I cooked from her book, two friends decided they had to have Classic Italian Cooking for themselves.  One of the books has now been used on three different continents. 

When I started working at the Cookbook Store, Classic Italian Cooking was the first book I recommended to a customer. However, it was still several years until I actually met its author.  By this time she had published several books featuring author photos which made her look like a warm Italian grandmother.  In person, Marcella Hazan was rather crusty. On her first visit, I baked a cake with ground hazelnuts.  Fearing I’d end up with hazelnut butter, I did not grind the nuts too finely.  Of course, Marcella’s first comment was, “If I were making this cake, I’d grind the nuts more finely. I take some comfort in the fact that she did eat the whole wedge.

There were other visits to the Cookbook Store.  Her husband Victor, a highly regarded wine writer, was charm itself, smoothing the way for his wife and anyone with whom she came in contact.  Indeed, her icy demeanor thawed over time, and her final visit was positively cosy.  Amongst both friends and culinary friends, Marcella was famous for her twin passions—cigarettes and whisky. After that visit, one of her friends when asking how the visit had gone, upon hearing of Marcella’s good mood said, “Well, you must have given her lots of whisky and allowed her to smoke!”

In later years, Victor and Marcella moved to Longboat Key,  Florida to be close to their son, Giuliano, who is also a cookbook author. Recently the New York Times food writer, Mark Bittman wrote about a final trip to cook with Marcella in Florida shortly before she died. Marcella had planned to bake something for dessert. In the end, she did not have the energy so served ice cream scattered with coffee grounds and drizzled with whisky.  I laughed and cried, knowing that she was true to herself to the end.

Written by Jennifer Grange, Cookbook Store staff member since 1983.

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