Reader Liam sent this as an “important update” to the Marcella Hazan RIP blog, but it’s too good not to separate out and show to you. It’s a short New Yorker blog piece by the cartoonist David Sipress, who drew the cartoon above (the photograph is of the cartoon inside a cheap frame, in our kitchen, where it has been for six years, like an icon of culinary blessedness). He talks about how he drew out out of thanksgiving for learning how to cook. Sipress and his wife had gone to Italy on their honeymoon, and returned desperate to eat like that at home. But he didn’t know how to cook:
What I needed was a teacher. And I found mine in Marcella’s “The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.” All I had to do was follow her instructions to the letter, and success was pretty much guaranteed. If you’ve ever seen Marcella on television, you know that she was a short, compact lady, a tough biscotti with a raspy voice who didn’t suffer fools gladly and had a surprising preference for Jack Daniels over a glass of wine. But in her books her voice is always warm and encouraging. This, and the fact that her recipes are consistently clear and straightforward, enabled me to overcome a lifetime of insecurity in the kitchen. She just made it all seem so easy. For example, there is her classic tomato sauce with onion and butter, her gift to the beginner Italian cook and the first thing I made from the book. She begins the recipe by saying, “This is the simplest of all sauces to make, and none has a purer, more irresistibly tomato taste. I have known people to skip the pasta and eat the sauce directly out of the pot with a spoon.” All you do is put the tomatoes in the pan, add a medium-sized onion cut in half and the butter, and simmer for forty-five minutes.
It also helped that she has precise rules—only use the best olive oil, do not put salt in youraio e oio until you toss it at the end, never cook a tomato sauce in a covered pan, or it will end up being “bland, steamed, weakly formulaic.” I do well with rules.
Soon I was whipping up asparagus risotto, pan-roasted quail with pancetta, spaghetti vongole, braised carrots with capers. I started shopping at farmer’s markets and buying thirty-dollar bottles of balsamic vinegar. My wife and I stopped going to restaurants or ordering takeout every night of the week. I actually started having people over for dinner. I loved my own cooking.
This is basically what I wrote to Marcella Hazan in 2003, expressing gratitude to her for teaching me, with that same cookbook, how to make good food at home. I never went as far into the book as Sipress did — but I might yet! The point is that Italian cooking is a lot easier than French cooking, in that you can achieve excellent results without nearly as much effort, provided you have a good guide (like Marcella), and use only the best ingredients. I was consistently amazed by how good the simplest recipes from Hazan’s cookbook turned out. I noticed that Hazan’s Essentials is in the Amazon.com Top 10 since her passing. What an honor to her memory, and a blessing to come to all the home cooks who will discover her…