The Daily Meal Hall of Fame: Marcella Hazan

Contributor
This irascible dynamo taught America how to cook real Italian food — along with plenty of lessons about how to cook, period
Marcella Hazan.

Honoring Marcella Hazan.

The Daily Meal is announcing the inductees into its Hall of Fame for 2016. The Hall of Fame honors key figures, both living and dead, from the world of food. We are introducing the honorees, one per weekday. Today's inductee is Marcella Hazan.

I first met Marcella Hazan through her cookbook, The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating, published in 1973. There weren’t many Italian cookbooks around then, so I snapped it up the minute I saw it. As I read through the pages, I felt that I had met a great friend and teacher; it became my bible. I spent a day in my tiny kitchen learning to make her besciamella sauce, delicately flavored with grated nutmeg. I spent a week learning to make bolognese sauce from her native Emilia-Romagna, with pork, veal, and beef cooked down into a meltingly subtle sauce. She had written down all those unwritten recipes that, up until then, had been only passed down from mother to daughter by word of mouth.

Italian-American food before the 1970s was often a cartoonish collision of Italian ingenuity and American abundance — spaghetti and big meatballs, heavy meat-packed lasagna, thick pizza laden with toppings. This food was (and still is) unknown in Italy. Marcella introduced us to the simple elegance of authentic Italian cuisine, and through it she taught us the history, culture, and character of a country. Italy really has no national cuisine, but rather many regional ones — saffron-infused risotto from Piedmont, where rice grows; hand-rolled stuffed pasta from Emilia Romagna; delicate fritto misto — crisp-fried seafood from the Venice Lagoon. She also introduced balsamic vinegar (for better or worse) to American cooks.

I met Marcella in person in New York in the 1980s when I cooked lunch for her at an editorial meeting at Metropolitan Home magazine. Thank God I had the good sense not to make something Italian! Instead I made her a fish stew — a chowder of New England cod, little shrimp, and clams in a rich broth simmered from the fish bones. I wanted to cook something regional, something American. I stood in the tiny service kitchen and through the partially opened door, listened to her speak to the table. She said, “You have to have the flavor of the finished dish in your mind before you begin cooking so that you will know where you are going and how to get there.” I never forgot those important words. She must have seen me standing in the doorway, because she graciously asked to meet the person who cooked the fish stew. Shyly I took off my apron, pulled my hair from its pony tail, and walked out to accept her gracious thank-you. I learned a lesson there, too.

In the 1990s, I went to Longboat Key, Florida, to photograph Marcella and her husband, Victor, for a magazine story. I spent several days with them. She wasn’t well, but she held forth at the kitchen table, instructing me how to trim baby artichokes: “No, don’t rip off the leaf like that, hold the bottom and peel away the leaf leaving the meat next to the heart,” she said — as if slightly incredulous that anyone my age could still be so ignorant in the ways of an artichoke. Marcella was no doubt a little intimidating. But she was a great teacher and she taught the right way to do things. After a lovely lunch, Victor went off to exercise and Marcella to rest. I said I would take a few pictures of the kitchen. I thought I was being quiet as I staged a few scenarios, moving pots and pans and shooting on the floor into a cupboard full of nesting pots but I heard her distinctive husky voice say, “What are you doing?” I stammered that I was shooting her beautiful cookware. By now she was used to the accolades and acolytes. She raised her eyebrows, tilted her head, and shrugged her shoulders in that Italian way to say “Beh, but do it more quietly.” And as she walked to her room, she thanked me for coming and reminded me to lock the door as I left. I got the message.

Marcella departed herself, permanently, in September of 2013, at the age of 89. What remains of the work she did as a writer and teacher and (yes) scold, besides her books themselves (which are timeless and as eminently usable as ever), is her palpable influence on two generations of American home cooks and at least some restaurant chefs. She taught us to understand and appreciate the beauty of true, honest Italian cooking — and, by extension, to respect simplicity and confidence in the kitchen no matter what we were cooking.

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