Marcella Hazan, the Italian cookbook writer who died in late September, age 89, must have been young once. Yet in the last 40 years, as she produced six seminal cookbooks and a memoir, she always seemed as old as Europe, as admired and as misunderstood by the emerging American food world.
Hazan's accomplishments are so great that it's easy to miss that food writing was a second career and an accident. As a girl with a badly damaged right hand growing up in a 14th-century town south of Venice, she never learned to cook in childhood.
Her first career, as a biologist with twin doctorates, took an abrupt left turn when in 1955, at 31, she married an Italian-American, Victor Hazan, and moved to New York from Italy, though she spoke no English. By 1958, she was raising newborn son Giuliano in Mad Men-era Manhattan while steadily teaching herself to speak English and cook Italian.
Hazan was 46 years old and giving cooking courses in her apartment when The New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne came to lunch in 1970. How quaint the Hazans must have seemed, with Victor coming home for lunch every day to eat the likes of tortelloni stuffed with Swiss chard and 12-year-old Giuliano being sent off to school with prosciutto sandwiches in his lunchbox. Mrs. Hazan's passions outside the kitchen, noted Claiborne, were Japanese flower arranging and ceramics.
A less methodical person would not have had the skills to approximate the risottos and braised cuttlefish of her hometown on the Adriatic coast, but her real early triumph might have been foraging. Somehow in the heyday of Uncle Ben's, Land O'Lakes and Kraft Parmesan in a can, Hazan ferreted out Arborio rice, cultured butter and blocks of the signature aged cows milk of her home region, Parmigiano-Reggiano.
She never stopped grumbling about the things she couldn't find, such as the small Italian artichokes that can be eaten raw, or radicchio that cooks down to a bittersweet, tender state that is sensuous but never sludgy or sour. Marshaling her withered right hand, Hazan demonstrated for classes and reporters how to pare down big American artichokes to their tender hearts. No amount of topiary could save our radicchio, so she began recommending that Americans substitute it with Belgian endive.
Steadily encouraged by Claiborne, by 1980 she had written, and Victor had translated, two seminal cookbooks: the 1973 Classic Italian Cookbook and the 1978 More Classic Italian Cooking. Today it seems almost impossible to believe that, before Hazan, most Americans had never tasted pesto. Before Hazan, it was firmly established in American cooking lore that the way to tell when spaghetti was cooked was to throw a wet strand of the pasta against the wall. If it stuck, it was supposedly cooked.
The rules she emphasized about the chemistry and physics of cooking would make anyone a better cook in any cuisine. Salt the cooking water amply, she would urge; most of it drains out. Salt water for blanching leafy green vegetables to fix the chlorophyll. Always toss pasta well in a broad platter, not a bowl, to coat all the noodles, and do not drown them in sauce. Do not put fresh pasta in the refrigerator unless you want the flour to separate from the eggs and the noodles to become grainy and lumpen.
By the 1980s, with Victor explaining wines and Marcella teaching cooking, the Hazan cooking classes extended to Italy. The Hazans bought a big pad on the top floor of a fine old building in Venice and a bolt-hole apartment in Bologna. Spurred by a strong dollar, gastro-tourism was on the rise. Ebullient Americans began crossing the Atlantic to take Hazan cooking classes in luxury hotels in Bologna and Venice. Those who showed up to class on time were greeted with a Campari cocktail, observed Toronto restaurant critic Joanne Kates, who took a course in Bologna in 1985. Stragglers were locked out.
As I set out in 1993 on assignment from a British magazine to take Marcella's course in Venice, an American newspaper had warned, “Make no mistake — she brooks no fools.” But what I found was a woman who not only suffered fools gladly but also did it for a living. Marcella's students, like herself, had somehow got to mid and even late adulthood unable to cook. You have to start somewhere. For these well-heeled novices, it was the Hotel Cipriani.
Her Northern League Italian hauteur combined with science-geek deadpan delighted the class. Admonishing against haste, she would remark, “The fastest way to get from the top of a building to the bottom is to jump, but you are dead when you arrive.” After one cheerfully incompetent student called out something to the effect of, “Marcella, how do you mince parsley?” Marcella responded, “There is no secret. You just keep chopping.”
Leading us through the Rialto market while his wife napped, Victor explained how the temperate waters of the Adriatic gave rise to the milky, tender squid that we would eat that evening at restaurants where the Hazans had ensured we would be treated warmly and fed well. At the end of the course, the Hazans presented attendees with diplomas that had been rolled into scrolls and tied with a ribbon.
After the Venice course, Marcella, Victor and I later met up when they were in London promoting the 1992 Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I took the then–70-year-old Hazan to the Groucho Club, a well-padded place in Soho where she sank into a deep armchair and ordered a hamburger. “Good burger,” she said. By contrast, several days later, at the River Café, a glass-and-hardwood, Italian-themed restaurant co-owned by the wife of a celebrated modernist architect, Hazan glanced at the menu, looked up and asked, “Why do English speakers write menus in Italian?”
Being taken to restaurants when she would have preferred cooking her own lunch became the cost of doing business. In grueling press tours over the next 14 years for another three cookbooks and a memoir, USA Today took her to the Olive Garden, The New York Times took her out for Chinese and The Boston Globe took her to a cavernous Mediterranean-themed restaurant named Biba, where she leaked such obvious despair that the clearly offended reporter led the article with it.
The courses in Venice came to an end in 1998, when the Hazans longed for a warmer city and closer proximity to their American son, Giuliano, and moved to Longboat Key, Fla. I moved to Los Angeles the same year and soon lost contact with them, but several years ago we caught up on Facebook, which she treated like just another classroom and posted charming items, sometimes about a new dish — sweetbreads for Victor was one — or praising some article or other about how the dangers of fat and salt had been overblown.
Marcella Hazan was in her American years unrepentantly Italian, whether it was inscribing her books “buon appetito,” refusing to reduce fat in dishes to placate a powerful editor, defending her right to smoke, or lamenting openly at cocktail parties how people could drink wine without food.
Her stubbornness exasperated some but, paradoxically, it was her refusal to become less Continental that resulted in an accomplishment so deeply American that it feels Rushmore-like in scale. Beginning only in middle age, a woman with a disabled hand who taught herself to cook in a foreign country and spoke English as a second language changed the way that Americans shopped, cooked and ate.
Emily Green was restaurant critic for the U.K. Independent from 1989-95, after which, until 2006, she was a food writer and occasional restaurant critic for the British New Statesman and the Los Angeles Times. Now based in Altadena, she specializes in environment reporting but still takes time out to write about the pains and pleasures of the table for L.A. Weekly.