Marcella Hazan, 1924 - 2013: A Letter From Italy
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.
Giorgio Molinari Marcella Hazan
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.