Marcella Hazan: April 15, 1924-Sept. 29, 2013 

Italian cookbook writer introduced American kitchens to the practical art of simple cooking

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY SHAN STUMPF
  • Illustration by Shan Stumpf

[As is our tradition, we’ve profiled some of the lesser-known individuals we lost in 2013 – people who, through their contributions to our culture, left this world a better place than they found it.]

Almost everyone who’s ever stood in front of a stove has been slipped a recipe for The Sauce. Novice cooks are always amazed at how just three ingredients – a can of tomatoes, an onion, a stick of butter – meld in a miraculous example of kitchen alchemy into the silkiest, most luxurious yet fresh pasta topping. The author, for American audiences at least, of this practical magic was Italian cook Marcella Hazan.

Cook, not chef; despite being one of America’s best-selling cookbook authors for decades, Hazan never cooked commercially, never learned to cook from her mother, never really cared about cooking at all. She wasn’t interested in food, but she married a man who was, and who expected to be fed, so she figured it out. And in the first cooking class she took – one on Chinese cookery – she discovered her true talent: not cooking, but teaching. When the Chinese teacher had to leave one month into the course, her fellow students asked her to teach them to cook Italian instead. As she had done years earlier when confronted with a husband and a kitchen, Hazan shrugged and figured it out.

From these inauspicious beginnings, Marcella and Victor Hazan formed one of the most successful partnerships of the century. With Victor egging her on every step of the way, Marcella’s innate talent emerged; without him cajoling her to keep cooking, writing the headnotes, wining and dining the reporters and publishers, that talent would never have reached past their own kitchen. Instead, the Hazans introduced America to real Parmigiano-Reggiano (not that stinky dust in the green can), balsamic vinegar and tomato sauce that didn’t resemble ketchup.

New York Times food writer Mark Bittman compared Hazan to Julia Child, another cookbook writer who introduced America to a classical European cuisine. But unlike Child’s meticulously researched bible of gastronomy, Hazan’s first book, The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating, presented not a list of formulae but a way of life. Each subsequent volume the Hazans published – just seven in all, between 1973 and 2008 – was a portrait of Italy and of themselves, food the center yet incidental. Like cooking The Sauce, reading a Hazan cookbook is a simple luxury.

Hazan died in September in Longboat Key, where she and Victor retired several years ago. On the day before she died, according to the New York Times, they shared a meal he cooked: “trofie, the twisted Ligurian pasta, sauced with some pesto made with basil from the terrace garden.”

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