Remembering Marcella Hazan, Who Brought A Taste Of Italy To America

Sep 30, 2013
Originally published on September 30, 2013 10:09 pm

Marcella Hazan, whose cookbooks helped revolutionize Americans' conceptions of what real Italian cooking tastes like, died Sunday at her home in Longboat Key, Fla. She was 89.

As my colleague Linda Wertheimer noted in a 2010 profile of Hazan, "When Marcella Hazan came to America, Parmesan cheese came in cans; we'd never met balsamic vinegar. Marcella Hazan showed us that Italian cooking is simple, healthy and splendid."

Ironically, Hazan had little interest in food growing up — she was a trained biologist. But meeting her future husband changed all that, as Hazan told Wertheimer in 2010. We reprint the story that accompanied that interview in its entirety below. You can also listen to this 2005 story from the NPR archives in which Scott Simon visited Hazan in the kitchen.

When Marcella Hazan came to the United States in 1955, one of her first priorities was figuring out how she would feed her husband, Victor. The American grocery stores, with all their canned goods and prepackaged foods, were a far cry from the markets of her Italian homeland, where fresh produce, meats and fish were easy to find.

"I never saw a supermarket in Italy," she tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "The chicken, they were arriving from the farmer, and they were alive. And at the supermarket they were very dead; they were wrapped; it was like a coffin. Everything was not natural."

Despite limited ingredients — and her limited English — she did her best to re-create Italian food as she remembered it. And, in doing so, she tapped into a previously unknown talent: cooking.

Growing up, she didn't have much interest in food. She saw it mainly as fuel — getting her through the day and all the activities she enjoyed. But she did not know how to cook and wasn't interested in learning. Her interest lay in the sciences — at university she studied biology, and she took a teaching position after graduation.

But meeting her future husband changed all that. Victor Hazan was an American who had been born in Italy and lived there as a child. He had returned to Italy to write — and to eat. This was a man who loved food so much, he began planning his next meal before he'd finished the one he was eating.

"He was always talking about food," Marcella remembers. "For me, a young woman, you think that someone who courts you would talk about other things, not food. Especially when you're not interested in food."

Nevertheless, Victor successfully wooed Marcella. They married and remained in Italy for a short six months before his parents called him back to New York to help with the family business. They settled in the suburbs of Forest Hills, where Marcella learned to cook out of necessity.

She was encouraged by her success re-creating favorite foods from home, and Marcella found herself becoming more interested in cooking. She signed up for a Chinese cooking course — a cuisine that she found to be similar to Italian with its pasta dishes and layers of flavor.

A month into the course, the teacher suddenly had to return to China. Marcella's classmates, eager for another class to take, asked Marcella if she would consider teaching them to cook Italian food.

She recalls getting home that day and saying to Victor, "American women are crazy. Look what they asked me."

He replied, "Well, you complain that you don't know what to do, that you have free time — why don't you do it?"

Her first cooking classes led to a profile by New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne. That, in turn, led to more classes and eventually brought a book publisher to Marcella's doorstep. He asked her if she had thought about writing a cookbook, and she replied that she had not. When the publisher asked why not, she replied, "Because I don't write in English."

It was Victor who convinced Marcella that a cookbook was possible. He would act as her translator and editor, and would check the recipes that his wife made up from scratch. As he edited and rewrote, he picked up on details that she sometimes overlooked.

Marcella says Victor would often come into the kitchen as she was cooking and interrupt her. "I don't know," he'd point out. "All the string beans that I eat in this house — they don't have both ends."

"Of course they don't have both ends," she'd reply. "I took them out."

"But you didn't write that," he'd say.

Back and forth they went, haggling over small points. But in the end, the attention to detail is what made Marcella's cookbooks — The Classic Italian Cookbook and six others — so easy for people to use.

Those recipes even saved a few romances. A women's magazine ran Marcella's "Roast Chicken with Lemons." The article got an overwhelming number of responses, including a large number from women who said, "I made this dish for my boyfriend and he proposed."

The magazine re-ran the recipe, calling it "Engagement Chicken."

Those newly engaged couples had a model in Marcella and Victor. They've now been married for almost 55 years, working partners for most of that time. Their partnership has resulted in six cookbooks, cooking schools in both the U.S. and in Italy, and a revolution in the way Americans cook — and eat — Italian food.

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In each recipe, there is a story, an adventure with a beginning, a middle and, I hope, a happy ending. Those words from the mother of Italian cooking in America, Marcella Hazan. She died yesterday at age 89. Starting with her classic Italian cookbook in 1973, Hazan changed the way we cook and appreciate Italian food.

Dorothy Kalins, the founding editor of Saveur magazine, shared many meals with Marcella Hazan and counted her as a longtime friend. Dorothy Kalins thanks for being with us.


BLOCK: How would you describe what made Marcella Hazan so influential?

KALINS: The most important thing to remember about Marcella is in this chef-obsessed world, she was a cook, a home cook and not a chef. And as a matter of fact, if you went out to dinner with Marcella in New York, you would never go to an Italian restaurant because she felt that that was not cooking. That was plating. She would say, take a picture of the plate and now bring me some food.

BLOCK: Some real food.

KALINS: Real food.

BLOCK: Let's listen to a little bit of an interview a few years ago. This is Marcella Hazan, talking with our colleague Linda Wertheimer and she was talking about the courtship with her husband, Victor, and his intense love of food.

MARCELLA HAZAN: He was always talking about food, so - which, for me, young woman, you think that someone who court you talk about other thing, but not food. Especially when you're not interested in food.

BLOCK: And this is such an interesting idea, Dorothy, because she did not set out to be a cook, really.

KALINS: No. She had two advanced degrees in biology, but she loved Victor and she wanted to please Victor and probably could have become a nuclear physicist if that's what Victor was interested in. And she started teaching fundamental principles of Italian cooking just at the moment when Craig Claiborne, who was very influential at the New York Times, discovered her. And she became the voice of an Italian housewife, if you will, but filtered through something very much more complex and very much more intelligent than that.

BLOCK: You wrote in one of your articles about her that she did not suffer fools gladly.

KALINS: Well, you know, we have - share a beautiful, mutual friend, Pamela Fiore(ph), and she said something wonderful. She said, Marcella minces garlic, she does not mince words. She just - wasn't patient with kind of mindlessness, with people who didn't know how to approach or didn't know where she was going. One time I asked her what was the most important thing to tell people and she said, to know where you're going when you're cooking.

In other words, not just the recipe, but see what you want this to taste like on the plate. And it was so elemental. It was so smart and I've never forgotten that.

BLOCK: If you were to open up your Marcella Hazan cookbooks at home, would there be one page that's especially spattered, has been pored over many times?

KALINS: Well, I mean, I come back to risotto because it's so easy to screw it up and she's much more than just her recipes, although I think - you know, once she told me, do you know what I'm so proud of? Dorothy, she said, what am I so proud of? When she goes to sign books or when she went to sign books, so many women came to her and said, I named my daughter after you.

And the idea that there's a legacy of people who have learned from her and who care about her, that mattered to Marcella.

BLOCK: That Dorothy Kalins, remembering the influential Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan. She died yesterday at age 89. Dorothy, thank you so much.

KALINS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.