Marcella Hazan, the Italian-born cookbook author who taught generations of Americans how to create simple, fresh Italian food, died Sunday. She was 89.
Hazan died in the morning at her home in Florida, according to an email from her son, Giuliano Hazan, and posts on Facebook and Twitter from her husband and daughter-in-law.
Hazan was best known for her six cookbooks, which were written by her in Italian and translated into English by Victor, her husband of 57 years. The recipes were traditional, tasty and sparse — her famous tomato sauce contained only tomatoes, onion, butter and salt — and mirrored the tastes of her home country, where importance is placed on the freshness of food, rather than the whiz-bang recipes inside a chef’s mind.
She eschewed the American-style Italian food that suffocated mushy pasta in grainy meatballs and tasteless cheese. She begged home cooks to use more salt and once wrote that if readers were concerned about salt affecting one’s life expectancy, to “not read any further.” On the topic of garlic, Hazan took a sharp view.
“The unbalanced use of garlic is the single greatest cause of failure in would-be Italian cooking,” she wrote in her 2004 cookbook “Marcella Says…” ”It must remain a shadowy background presence. It cannot take over the show.”
I have never written a fan letter to anybody — except to Marcella Hazan. It was 2003, and I had just discovered her Essentials Of Classic Italian Cooking. I was overwhelmed. One night, in a gustatory rapture, I wrote her a letter telling her how much learning how to cook (and how to eat) meant to me, and how dear her work was to my heart. I mailed it, too, and when I told my wife what I had done, she said, “You didn’t.”
“Oh my God. She’s going to think you’re a stalker.”
Well, maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. I never heard from her. But I meant every word, and I remember her today with gratitude, and pray for her with ardor. What a great life she had: to cook like that, to make so many people happy by teaching them to cook, to be married to the same man for almost six decades, and to die sleeping your own bed at a ripe old age.
See that image above? That cartoon has been framed and in our kitchen(s) since 2007, when it appeared in a Saveur magazine issue that featured a visit to Marcella’s kitchen. An icon of St. Euphrosynos the Cook is there too. But Marcella got there first. RIP.
UPDATE: A lovely lengthy obit from the NYT, with a video interview by Mark Bittman. Excerpt:
The impact Mrs. Hazan had on the way America cooks Italian food is impossible to overstate. Even people who have never heard of Marcella Hazan cook and shop differently because of her, and the six cookbooks she wrote, starting in 1973 with “The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating.”
“She was the first mother of Italian cooking in America,” said Lidia Bastianich, the New York restaurateur and television cooking personality.
Mrs. Hazan embraced simplicity, precision and balance in her cooking. She abhorred the overuse of garlic in much of what passed for Italian food in the United States, and would not suffer fools afraid of salt or the effort it took to find quality ingredients.
Her tomato sauce, enriched with only an onion, butter and salt, embodies her approach, but she has legions of devotees to other recipes, among them her classic Bolognese, pork braised in milk and her minestrone.
When Mrs. Hazan arrived in New York in 1955, Italian food was still exotic, served in restaurants with straw-covered Chianti bottles and red-checked tablecloths.
She was a newlywed who did not speak English, transplanted to a country whose 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 once described as tasting no better than the water she used to wash out her own coffeepot at home. At her first Thanksgiving meal, she nearly gagged on the cranberry sauce.
What was worse, she had no cooking skills herself.
She was very much to Italian cooking in America what Julia Child was to French cooking. Except far less famous, because she didn’t do TV, and appears to have been something of a pistol. More from the obit:
Mr. Hazan said the family plans to take her ashes back to her beloved village of Cesenatico for a simple ceremony.
“Marcella was always very distressed when she would read complicated chefs’ recipes,” Mr. Hazan said. “She would just say, ‘Why not make it simple?’ So the sentiment holds. We will make it simple.”