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Marcella Hazan, RIP

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The great lady has died: [2]

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.

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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 [3]. 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.”

“I did.”

“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. [4] An icon of St. Euphrosynos the Cook [5] is there too. But Marcella got there first. RIP.

UPDATE: A lovely lengthy obit from the NYT [6], 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 [7], 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 [8], 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 [9], pork braised in milk and her minestrone [10].

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.”

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Marcella Hazan, RIP"

#1 Comment By Charles Cosimano On September 29, 2013 @ 5:24 pm

You put her before a saint who was also a cook. Oh are you in trouble.

[NFR: Well, her cartoon went up on our wall before we got an icon of St. Euphr. — RD]

#2 Comment By Michelle On September 29, 2013 @ 5:57 pm

May Marcella rest in peace. I have a well worn copy of one of her cookbooks (can’t remember which). I remember thinking when I first got it a couple decades ago that this wasn’t the Italian food I grew up with. No, it was much, much better.

[NFR: Yes, and with Hazan, simplicity is everything. It was she who taught me how to cook a pot roast. I don’t have a simpler recipe for anything, nor do I have a recipe that I use as often, with such satisfying results. — RD]

#3 Comment By Dan Davis On September 29, 2013 @ 6:11 pm

You just made me dust off my copy of Essentials.

#4 Comment By Hippimama On September 29, 2013 @ 6:21 pm

Oh! Requiescat in pace. Hers was the first cookbook we purchased after our marriage in 1993 and it accompanied us to our 3 years of living in Italy and many, many memorable meals. I still have my food journal from those years, and there is hardly a week that I didn’t pull that green book off the shelf. Still our favorites — pan roasted chicken and the fabulous dessert, Diplomatico.

#5 Comment By stillaninterestedobserver On September 29, 2013 @ 7:16 pm

Wonderful memories indeed. My good friend introduced me to Hazan some years ago and I have a copy of one of her books in my cooking collection to this day. An inspiration and a half, and I thank her for sharing such fine knowledge.

#6 Comment By Richard Johnson On September 29, 2013 @ 7:47 pm

In addition to an edit button you folks need to add a “like” button. May her family find peace and comfort during this time of loss.

#7 Comment By Lee Penn On September 29, 2013 @ 11:10 pm

Rod, which cook book is the pot roast recipe in?

More generally, which one of her cook books do you recommend? (I lean toward simple-to-prepare recipes).

Lee

#8 Comment By Anastasia On September 30, 2013 @ 7:19 am

Is that the Beef Braised in Red Wine Sauce, Rod? In-cred-ible.

[NFR: Nah, it’s the one just above that recipe. I forget what it’s called. It’s bacon-and-clove-studded beef slow-braised on a nest of onions. Crazy good. — RD]

#9 Comment By skrifari On September 30, 2013 @ 8:21 am

Marcella Hazan’s spaghetti frittata is the most versatle recipe in the world. Hot, cold, or room temp. You can dress it up for foodies and I’ve never met a kid who didn’t eat it happily. Travels beautifully, making it the perfect food to take to sick friends, houses with new babies, etc.

My life has been better and easier this last quarter century because I read that recipe. It’s in either Classic or More Classic. I won’t need to check in order to make it tonight becasue I’ve long since got it memorized.

May her family know how many lives she touched (including every house I’ve ever taken spaghetti frittata to).

[NFR: Yes! Julie has made that many times, and it’s so delicious! — RD]

#10 Comment By skrifari On September 30, 2013 @ 8:22 am

PS Didn’t mention that spaghetti frittata is beautiful and costs almost nothing.

#11 Comment By Al-Dhariyat On September 30, 2013 @ 10:09 am

Wonderful. I have been searching for a good bolognese recipe for a while now. It’s hard to tell who should or shouldn’t be used since Italian cooking isn’t part of my heritage but I followed the link in the NYT article and will be trying that recipe for sure. Thanks!

#12 Comment By M_Young On September 30, 2013 @ 1:21 pm

Hazan’s [11] with carrot and celery is my usual go to for spag — though I briefly saute the veggies before the tomatoes go in.

So I am an admirer, but…

I really dislike the general tendency in this country to bash local adaptations for ‘authentic’ food. Spaghetti and meatballs can be really good. So can Egg Fu Yung. So can Rumaki.

And after all, what is cajun food but a ‘non-authentic’ attempt at recreation of French food where the local ingredients (and climate) prevent ‘true’ reproduction?

#13 Comment By Ben Lima On September 30, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

One should not neglect her astute review of the Olive Garden restaurant chain:

[12]

“Victor finds the cheese and spinach filling to be “heavy-handed.” Marcella nods in agreement.

Everyone looks glum. “I must console myself,” Marcella says. She orders a Jack Daniel’s.

Third course: Lobster Spaghetti. Lobster and spinach sautéed with olive oil in a creamy broth and served over spaghetti.

Marcella renders judgment in a word.

“No,” she says, pushing her bowl away.

#14 Comment By Ted On September 30, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

One of the nicest things about Marcella is she wasn’t a snob–as long as it was Italian. She had some wonderful Sicilian recipes, and her ode to the Neapolitan pie–“what’s perfect is always simple”–is of a piece with her citation of Manzoni on polenta being poured onto a wooden table resembling the sun coming through the mist (“the image is almost Japanese”). She taught my wife to cook, as my wife will gratefully tell you. Evidently her teaching style at her school in Venice was alla Toscanini–lots of sarcasm and screaming. Bet it got results, just like the Maestro. RIP.

#15 Comment By Liam On September 30, 2013 @ 8:09 pm

Rod

Important update: [13]

#16 Comment By naturalmom On September 30, 2013 @ 11:43 pm

adding one of her cookbooks to my Christmas wish list…

(Which one is the best for everyday cooking for a family? The Essentials one?)

#17 Comment By Ted On October 1, 2013 @ 8:28 am

naturalmom: “The Essentials” is, er, essential, but there’s a book with color photos called “Marcella”s Italian Kitchen” that has some doozies, including many lovely desserts.

#18 Comment By naturalmom On October 1, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

Thanks Ted!