In Memoriam: Marcella Hazan

In Memoriam: Marcella Hazan

 

The James Beard Foundation is deeply saddened by the loss of author and culinary legend Marcella Hazan. A native of Italy's Emilia-Romagna region, Hazan published several Italian cookbooks, and was widely considered to be one of the world's foremost authorities on authentic Italian cuisine and techniques. She is a multiple James Beard Book Award winner; her first book, The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating, was inducted into the JBF Cookbook Hall of Fame in 2000. She also received the Foundation's Lifetime Achievement award that same year. In 1986 she was named a "Who's Who of Food & Beverage."

 

In homage to Hazan's rich life and impact, we're sharing a profile of her written for the 2000 James Beard Awards program. It is presented below.

 

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“Marcella Hazan,” Craig Claiborne once wrote, “is a national treasure…No one has ever done more to spread the gospel of pure Italian cookery in America.” Julia Child called her “my mentor in all things Italian.” Food writer Chris Sherman declared her “America’s most revered teacher of Italian cooking.” The praise that has been lavished on this diminutive, raspy-voiced teacher and cookbook author is as astounding as it is well-deserved, especially in light of the fact that Hazan, who taught herself how to cook as a newlywed immigrant in Manhattan in the 1950s, stumbled on her monumental career entirely by accident. A chance word or two—a hastily made promise in reply to questions half understood—and a culinary superstar was on her way to changing the way Americans think about Italian food.

 

Hazan was born in the Italian fishing village of Cesenatico in Emilia-Romagna, and raised there and in Alexandria, Egypt. She didn’t do any cooking in her youth. The maid took care of that, while Hazan focused on science. She earned double doctorate degrees from the universities of Padua and Ferrara in biology and the natural sciences, and she was a professor when she met her husband, Victor, in 1953. Theirs was, and is, a great love affair; they married in 1955, moved to New York, and have been virtually inseparable, in life and in work, ever since.

 

When she arrived in New York, Hazan—who spoke virtually no English—landed a job at the Guggenheim Institute, studying gum disease. But the subject that fascinated her in her new home was food. Biology she understood; the science of the kitchen was a brave new world. Her new husband was a true gourmand, and she wanted to cook the food they both had loved in Italy for him, but she hadn’t the faintest idea how. Determined to learn, she got herself a copy of Ada Boni’s Talismano della Felicità, learned to negotiate American supermarkets (“To me the food was in coffins, trapped,” she says of the highly packaged American fare of the day), and started cooking. Like the scientist she was, she experimented, trying to recreate the flavors of the Italian meals she missed so much with American ingredients. As she writes in Marcella Cucina, her latest book, “I learned to cook by cooking, by discovering what had to be done to produce the results I wanted.” She served her first, tentative home-cooked Italian meals to a discriminating audience of one, on a card table so rickety she could fill her soup bowls only a quarter of the way up. At every meal, Hazan and her husband analyzed, dissected, and discussed her work. From the beginning, he swears, the food was good. Over time, she learned, gained confidence, and eventually left the cookbook behind. When her son was born, she gave up her job, and found herself spending more and more time in the kitchen.

 

By the time she enrolled in a Chinese cooking class in 1968, Hazan was a masterful cook, though her English was still less than perfect. She impressed the half-dozen women in her class, who began to quiz her about Italian cooking. When they asked her whether she enjoyed teaching, Hazan answered that she did; she was talking about biology. But when she figured out what her classmates wanted, she agreed to give weekly cooking lessons.

 

The classes were a revelation for her students. Italian cooking in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s meant pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, cannelloni. Restaurateur and longtime friend—and fellow Italian culinary crusader—Tony May explained, “There was a gross misconception of what Italian food is all about.” The food was faux-Italian, watered down for American palates and blended with other culinary traditions. It was heavy, coarse, unlovable. Hazan pointedly ignored it. She cooked the food that she had grown up with, the food that she and her husband craved in their American life: authentic, complex, subtle, regional Italian fare. Hazan’s students were thrilled, and they talked her up. Soon the word was out in Manhattan’s food community. A cooking school was launched.

 

In 1970 Victor Hazan sent a notice about his wife’s classes to the New York Times, hoping for a spot in its annual directory. The announcement arrived too late for the listing, but Craig Claiborne, then the Times’ food writer, happened across it. Intrigued, he called up to arrange an interview and found himself invited to lunch. Hazan and her cookery (tortelloni, veal scaloppine) impressed him so much that he wrote a glowing article, including recipes, and suddenly, the biologist was a culinary star. Sometime later, an editor at Harper’s Magazine Press called. He was promptly invited to dinner, and he asked Hazan to write a cookbook. Unsure of her English, she was hesitant, but her husband volunteered to translate her handwritten, no-nonsense recipes. The result was The Classic Italian Cook Book, which went on to sell more than half a million copies, becoming one of the nation’s most-read, best-loved, home-cooking guides. With this first book, Hazan dealt a fatal blow to the monster of faux-Italian cuisine in America, insisting on the primacy—and the deliciousness—of simple, authentic regional Italian food. As May put it, “Marcella tried to simplify the approach to Italian cooking, by talking about ingredients, talking about simple technique, talking about the integrity of food being prepared to eat. She single-handedly put forward a new image of Italian cuisine for the populace at large.”

 

But in 1976, Hazan left the United States, taking her now-burgeoning cooking school to Bologna; in 1980, she moved to Venice, where she held her classes in a 16th-century palazzo. Foodies flocked to the school. James Beard himself made a pilgrimage to Hazan’s Venetian kitchens. With her husband’s help, she kept producing American cookbooks: More Classic Italian Cooking (Knopf, 1978) winner of a Tastemaker Award; Marcella’s Italian Kitchen (Knopf, 1986); Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (Knopf, 1992), winner of the James Beard/KitchenAid Award for Best Italian Cookbook. Marcella Cucina (HarperCollins, 1997), which earned a then-record advance for a cookbook in the United States, won both the James Beard Award for Best Mediterranean Cookbook and the I.A.C.P.’s Julia Child Cookbook Award for Best International Cookbook. In 1992, the Hazans won the Food Arts Silver Spoon Award for “sterling performance” in introducing Americans to “Italian food and Italian wines—as they’re served and consumed in Italy.” In 1986, she was inducted into the James Beard Foundation/D’Artagnan Cervena Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America. In 1997 Esquire magazine put Hazan on its list of The 100 Best People in the World; “By best,” the editors elaborated, “we mean people who make our lives richer or larger or happier.”

 

In 1998, Hazan and her husband sold the Italian palazzo, closed down the cooking school, and moved to Long Boat Key, on Florida’s west coast. Their son, Giuliano, himself a popular cooking teacher and author of The Classic Pasta Cookbook (Dorling Kindersley, 1993), lives nearby with his family; the weather is gentle; the ocean is just steps away; and Hazan can see it from her stove, positioned squarely in the middle of the kitchen. (The most social of culinarians, she refuses to cook facing the wall.) Though she has slowed down, she has not exactly retired. Speaking engagements, guest teaching stints, and television appearances are lined up years in advance. As always, Hazan’s straight-up, from-the-heart approach to regional Italian cookery is in high demand.

 

Hazan, Patricia Talorico wrote in the News Journal, “is a purist interested only in three things in her cooking: clarity, passion and sincerity.” Her contribution to Italian cooking in America cannot be overestimated. “If you use sun-dried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar or extra-virgin olive oil,” wrote Scott Joseph of Florida magazine, “or if you dine on calamari and pasta salad, you do so because Marcella Hazan introduced them to America.” “She has done for Italian cuisine what Julia Child has done for French cooking,” May asserts. On May 7, he’ll be holding a special brunch at San Domenico NY in her honor. “We are excited that she is being recognized by the James Beard Foundation for this special Lifetime Achievement award,” he says. “She deserves it. They could not have picked a better person to represent the evolution in Italian cooking.”

 

If you need any further measure of the impact Hazan has had on the culinary lives of millions of Americans, consider this: on tour in California for Marcella Cucina not long ago, she met a woman at a book signing who had been so galvanized by Hazan’s work that she had named her baby Marcella. Keep an eye out for a hot new food pro from Pasadena in the year 2020 or so. If there’s anything in a name, that little girl promises to be a culinary powerhouse.

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