Marcella Hazan: Ambassador for Italian cuisine who changed the way that Americans cooked

 

Marcella Hazan was the cooking instructor and best-selling author who propelled mid-20th century America beyond canned beefaroni into a world of homemade pastas and what she called the "simple, true" cuisine of her native Italy. When she died her husband, the wine writer Victor Hazan, sent word to their son Giuliano not to cancel his scheduled cooking class in Valpolicella because that's what his mother would have wanted.

Hazan said she had never cooked before her marriage in 1955; her family in Italy had always relied on hired help. Her first trips to American markets were demoralising, she said: "The food was dead, wrapped in plastic coffins." Her husband, working for his family's furrier business, encouraged her passion for recreating the savoury pleasures of her youth. She had "innate intuition" for cooking, he later said, because she "came out of a culture where food is a central part of life."

Her cooking career was an accident. She was taking a class on Chinese cuisine in 1969 when classmates asked her for Italian recipes. Word soon got to the influential food writer and critic Craig Claiborne of The New York Times, who cemented her reputation in a feature article the next year.

From then on, Hazan was a leading ambassador of Italian cuisine. Julia Child once called her "my mentor in all things Italian." Her workshops in New York and Italy drew ordinary home-makers as well as the chef and food writer James Beard and entertainers such as Danny Kaye and Burt Lancaster. Her cultural status was affirmed by the New Yorker cartoonist David Sipress, who captured her allure in a drawing for Gastronomica magazine a decade ago. He depicted two women in a kitchen, one telling the other about the image in a shrine over the stove: "It's not a saint, exactly. It's Marcella Hazan."

For each of her six cookbooks, which sold millions of copies, Hazan offered clear, uncomplicated and dependable recipes. She demanded the use of extra-virgin olive oil years before it became a staple of the Mediterranean diet fad. She taught people to put a lemon in the cavity of a roast chicken; to savour spaghetti sauced with garlic, olive oil, crushed red pepper flakes and flat-leaf parsley as much as any tomato sauce; and to notice the difference salt makes by smelling, not just tasting.

The genius of her four-ingredient tomato sauce – fresh or canned San Marzano tomatoes, butter, an onion and salt – freed home cooks from having to reconstruct the thick, overly sweet red blankets poured from a jar.

If Child, a friend, gently criticised her for being "too much of a perfectionist," Hazan felt she had much to be exasperated about in trying to correct American cooking habits and trends she found ludicrous. The tendency to over-sauce, she once said, left her "depressed." On tomato-hued pasta, she said, "I've lost the war on this," while of sun-dried tomatoes she said, "I never cook with sun-dried tomato. That's a pickle!"

Hazan wrote in Italian, her husband translating. She admired the way Victor captured her voice, one often noted for an edge of impatience during several decades of cooking classes. "You learn a lot about cooking from the questions," she said. "Sometimes they're stupid questions. And sometimes they make you think, 'I need to explain.' The best ingredient in the kitchen is common sense."

She was born Marcella Polini in 1924 in Cesenatico, Italy, which she described in her memoir as a quiet fishing town on the northern Adriatic known for a small yet powerfully flavoured sole called saraghina and a canal designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Her father was a tailor who had worked in Paris and New York. The Polinis moved to Alexandria in Egypt when Marcella was two so her mother, Maria, could be reunited with her family.

Five years later Marcella fell and broke her right arm. Complications, including gangrene, set in, and Maria took her daughter to Bologna to correct the problem. A series of operations left Marcella unable to open her arm fully and with a crooked hand. Yet she credits that turn of events with setting her on a course that led to her career.

Even though her mother was a good cook, Marcella was interested in academic rather than culinary pursuits. In the early 1950s she received doctoral degrees in biology and geology at the University of Ferrara. She met Victor Hazan about that time and moved with him to the US. The Hazans moved back to Italy in 1962, lived in Milan, Florence and Rome before returning to the US in 1967. In Manhattan, visits to Pearl's, a Chinese restaurant, led her to Chinese cookery classes, but when the teacher cancelled after one class, Hazan found herself teaching Italian dishes to six former classmates.

Claiborne called about the classes and came to lunch at her apartment. She served tortelloni and veal scaloppine. This led to an article and a lifelong friendship. Her first book, The Classic Italian Cookbook (1973), did not come easily. "Every time I would measure," she said, "I would forget what I was doing and the recipe would come out wrong." Victor was the one who put transparent coverings over bowls and pots, to catch and measure the ingredients she tossed in as she worked.

Although Hazan called Marcella Cucina (1997) "the last book of her life", for which she received an advance of $650,000, she went on to write Marcella Says: Italian Cooking Wisdom From the Legendary Teacher's Master Classes With 120 of Her Irresistible Recipes (2004) and her memoir Amarcord: Marcella Remembers (2008).

Hazan appeared as a guest on TV variety shows, dined with celebrities and ramped up her cooking classes at home and abroad. The sessions took days and included trips to the market. The city of Bologna built a new kitchen for her cooking school there in 1978. Nine years later, she turned the school over to Giuliano. She and Victor retired to Florida in 2000. Les Dames d'Escoffier made her a Grand Dame in 2005.

Bonnie S Benwick, Washington Post

Marcella Polini, cookery writer: born Cesenatico, Emilia-Romagna, Italy 15 April 1924; married 1955 Victor Hazan (one son); died Longboat Key, Florida 29 September 2013.

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