On September 29th, one of the great culinary lights passed away. Marcella Hazan was 89 years old, and since the late 1970’s has been considered by many (very many) to be the absolute authority on authentic Italian cooking. While some people found her difficult, Hazan did not suffer fools gladly and was notably impatient. Her precision and genius level palate made her a revered figure in the culinary world.
Marcella Hazan (nee Polini) was born in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and trained as a scientist, graduating with a doctorate in biology and natural sciences. Up until her marriage in 1955 to Victor Hazan, she had never done any cooking. She did, however, grow up in a family of talented and enthusiastic cooks and her taste memories served her well once she and her husband moved to New York City shortly after their marriage. Hazan found that she could easily reproduce the dishes that she had grown up with in Italy. Eventually, she began giving cooking lessons in her apartment and in 1969 she opened The School of Classic Italian Cooking. Soon, she came to the attention of Craig Claiborne, then the food editor of the New York Times, who did a story about her. A book contract soon followed and in 1973 The Classic Italian Cook Book appeared. More Classic Italian Cooking came out in 1978. Combined into one book, the two volumes became Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking which came out in 1992 and remains the authoritative resource for Italian cuisine. Hazan retired in 1998 and moved with Victor to Longboat Key, Florida but even then another cookbook was to follow (from which I have gratefully borrowed this post’s title). Marcella Says…Italian cooking wisdom from the legendary teacher’s master classes is the book that Hazan
decided to write when she could no longer find the type of authentic ingredients that came so easily to her in New York City.
In a time when cooking shows are all the rage and people like Lidia, Mario, and Giada enjoy celebrity status, it might be difficult to comprehend the enormous impact that Hazan’s Essentials… had on the American culinary scene. Polenta, risotto, braised squid, and sauteed swiss chard were a revelation to palates long accustomed to the type of Italian-American cooking associated with spaghetti and meatballs and pizza. Along with Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Hazan’s books revolutionized the way in which Americans ate and cooked. Though some of Hazan’s recipes are complicated, many more are incredibly simple. Take her recipe for Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter. It consists of a 28 ounce can of tomatoes, an onion peeled and cut in half, butter, and salt. That’s all…no garlic, no crushed red pepper, no grated carrot or zucchini. You gently simmer for 45 minutes, put the sauce on cooked pasta, eat it, and (as someone who has made this sauce many times) become very, very happy. Hazan’s classic recipe for pork loin braised in milk is another favorite of mine for dinner parties. It looks and tastes complex but is actually as easy as can be (and absolutely delicious!).
Also available at DCPL are Marcella’s Italian Kitchen and Marcella Cucina, which won both a James Beard Award and a Julia Child Award in 1997.
For a moving tribute to Marcella Hazan and her influence, check out this piece written by David Sipress for the New Yorker.