Here is how Marcella Hazan became famous. Her work as an Italian cooking teacher in Manhattan caught the attention of New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne, who profiled her in 1970. The following year, she landed a cookbook deal. She became friendly with Julia Child, who shared contacts in the publishing world. More cookbooks and a magazine column followed. She became an industry — teaching cooking classes in Venice, selling merchandise in a department store and consulting restaurateurs. Fun fact: She was the chef who oversaw the opening of Veni Vidi Vici in Midtown, and her son, Guiliano Hazan, was the pastry chef.
Here is why Marcella Hazan became famous: that first cookbook. It changed lives.
Hazan, who died last Sunday at the age of 89 at her home in Longboat Key, Fla., pulled off the feat that every cookbook author attempts and only a handful succeed at. She managed to get readers up and cooking thanks to her voice (as instructive as it was judgmental), her recipes (stripped down to basic ingredients but laid out in painstaking detail) and especially her message (cook to reveal flavors, not to impress dinner guests).
I’m not sure how my paperback copy of “The Classic Italian Cookbook: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating” came into my possession, but for a period in my mid-20’s it was my bible. I had never once contemplated making egg pasta or that anyone made egg pasta. But there was Hazan, a native of Emilia-Romagna, somehow commanding me to pour a hillock of flour onto the counter, make a well and crack two eggs inside. It was what her grandmother did every night. We ate that first batch of fettuccine with Parmesan, butter and black pepper and from that point forward my cooking had changed.
Marcella cajoled and hectored readers who grew up in mid-century America and didn’t, in her opinion, understand ingredients. We used way too much garlic, not enough salt and we had no idea what a tomato sauce should taste like. More than anything, we didn’t understand the flavors of fresh ingredients. If we did, we’d figure out that recipes needed to simplify and pare down. We were too fond of complication.
Her calmly superior tone (translated into slightly stilted English from Italian by her husband, Victor) convinced us all that she was right. Her method for dressing a salad the Italian way (“Dressing is a process rather than an object, a verb rather than a noun.”) showed that good olive oil, a generous sprinkle of salt and a few drops of vinegar could be transformative.
I made her risotto, her pounded lamb chops in a Parmesan breading and her famous tomato sauce with butter. People from Emilia-Romagna aren’t wedded to olive oil.
When I got the opportunity to interview Hazan once at the Aspen Food & Wine Festival, I experienced that moment of cognitive dissonance that threw everyone she met. She smoked and drank. She had just come over the mountain pass and was recuperating with a Marlboro Light and a belt of Jack Daniels. She had a voice like gravel. I asked her about Italian-American food. “Too much garlic in everything,” she answered with a sly smile.
When it came time for another whiskey, I joined her.
Of the five tomato sauces in her book, this is the most famous:
Marcella Hazan’s Tomato SauceHands on: 10 minutes Total time: 1 hour Serves 6
Wash the tomatoes in cold water. Cut them in half, lengthwise. Cook in a covered stockpot or saucepan until they have simmered for 10 minutes.
Puree the tomatoes through a food mill back into the pot. Add the butter, onion, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and sugar and cook at a slow but steady simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Taste and correct for salt. Discard the onion.
If using canned tomatoes: Use 2 cups tomatoes and their juice.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog