Cookery writer who taught Americans about Italian food
Marcella Hazan: April 15th, 1924-September 29th, 2013
Macella Hazan, chef and cookbook author, at her home in Longboat Key, Florida
Hazan embraced simplicity, precision and balance in her cooking. She abhorred the overuse of garlic in Italian food served in the US and would not suffer fools afraid of salt or the effort involved in finding the right ingredients.
Her tomato sauce, enriched with only an onion, butter and salt, embodies her approach, but she has legions of devotees to other recipes, like her classic Bolognese, pork braised in milk, and minestrone.
When Hazan arrived in New York in 1955, Italian food was still served in restaurants with straw-covered Chianti bottles and red-checked tablecloths. She was a newlywed who didn’t speak English, transplanted to a country whose only knowledge of her native cuisine was not much more than spaghetti covered with what, to her, tasted like overly spiced ketchup. The culture shock nearly crushed her.
She was appalled by canned peas, hamburgers and coffee she said tasted no better than the water she used to wash out her own coffee pot at home. At her first Thanksgiving turkey meal, she nearly gagged on the cranberry sauce.
She began navigating a bewildering city that shopped and cooked in ways that were completely foreign to her. “I never saw a supermarket in Italy,” she said in a radio interview in 2010. “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.”
Hazan, born Marcella Polini in Cesenatico in Emilia-Romagna, broke her right arm in a childhood accident. The arm remained slightly malformed throughout her life, though she was still able to use a knife. She learned English by watching TV and learned to cook from a book. “Cooking came to me as though it had been there all along, waiting to be expressed; it came as words come to a child when it is time for her to speak,” she wrote in a 2008 memoir, Amarcord: Marcella Remembers.
In 1969 she began teaching classes in her New York apartment that were as much about Italian culture and history as about food. She taught students that Italian cooking was regional cooking, from the handmade noodles and meat sauce of Bologna to the fish and risotto of Venice and the linguine and clams of Naples.
She wrote her first book, The Classic Italian Cook Book, in 1973, and would go on to write five more, the last in 2004. She was never able to write in English, so all her work ultimately flowed through her husband, who has written two wine books.
Both editors and students in the classes she taught could be rocked on their heels by Hazan’s sometimes brusque manner. “A lot of people had encounters with her because she knew in her mind, in her heart, exactly how things were supposed to be,” her husband said. “That is what made her cooking great. Marcella wasn’t easy, but she was true. She made no compromises with herself, with her work or with her people.”
Hazan spent her final years on Florida’s Gulf Coast. She is survived by her husband, Victor, her son, Giuliano, himself a cooking teacher, and grandchildren.