When I moved to Florence to work on my dissertation, I knew that it would be a learning experience. While I knew that I would be delving into sixteenth century archives to search for clues about the Medici's shopping habits, I didn't realize that it would be my own shopping habits — for parmigiano, pasta, prosciutto and olives — that would eventually pave the path to my career. Because it turned out that a cookbook written in 1974, in English, by a transplanted Italian woman named Marcella Hazan would be the text that changed my life.
When I moved to Florence, I was no novice in the kitchen. I had already been cooking for my family since I was a teenager and for myself and my friends throughout college and graduate school. But when faced with the abundance of a daily market, filled with ingredients that were as enticing as they were puzzling, I realized I needed an instruction manual to my new life.
It is apt that I turned to Marcella Hazan for guidance. She too had moved to a new country, America, in 1955. Yet rather than be enthralled by her new gastronomic horizon she was appalled. Turning away from a landscape filled with canned vegetables and fast food, she pined for the tastes she grew up with. The only problem was that she didn't know how to cook. Luckily her husband, Victor, had an Italian classic to hand, Ada Boni's Il Talismano della Felicita. Thus armed, plus memories of the food she grew up with in Emilia- Romagna, she taught herself to cook.
Eventually, in the late '60s Marcella has so mastered her skills, that she began to teach cooking classes in New York. Her view of authentic Italian cuisine — which was made up of very specific regional dishes — was a far cry from the spaghetti and meatballs most people were familiar with. Rich Bolognese sauce over hand made fettucine, Spaghetti alle Vongole from Naples and Basil filled pesto from Liguria were completely new experiences for most people.
One thing led to the next and by 1973 she had published her first cookbook: The Classic Italian Cookbook and, in 1978, More Classic Italian Cooking.
It was this pair of paperback books that saw me through my two years in Florence. I made rabbit for the first time, filled my meatloaf with dried porcini mushrooms, learned how to render fat pork chops rich and succulent in rich tomato sauce. Her tone was straightforward and usually offered no room for compromise. She knew how things should be done, and wanted you to do the same. If you did — as anyone who has ever made her exacting recipe for Bolognese sauce knows — you will be rewarded.
It wasn't that the ingredients were that exotic, but recipes that I first learned, then internalized, completely changed the way I though about Italian food, and the way I cooked.
I am not alone.
Most of the chefs and cooks I know credit Marcella with having taught them the basics, the fundamentals, of Italian food. She taught a generation how to cook her way, which — as it turns out — was the best way. It was only by learning the basics, alla Marcella, that we could go on to find our own way to and through Italian cuisine.
When I found out that Marcella had died on Sunday I was heartbroken. And also a bit surprised. Marcella had always been such a strong presence, that I sort of assumed she would live forever.
So I started thinking how best to honor her, and started looking on my blog to sort through the 620 posts I've written over the last few years, looking for some sort of insight into how she influenced me. There was the direct ways of course — when I made a recipe from one of her books, adapting it for myself. Then there were the few and extremely cherished times Marcella actually stopped by herself, and left a comment or two.
But in the end I realized that there was no one moment, recipe or thought that I could pull out as epitomizing my debt to her. Without Marcella's help, her influence and voice inside my head, in my kitchen and on my table, there would be no blog.
Elizabeth Minchilli blogs at elizabeth minchilli in rome. Follow her on Twitter @eminchilli. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.