When Marcella Hazan was seven years old, she fell on the beach and broke her right arm. It was 1931, and she and her family were living in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. At the hospital, her arm was placed in a cast that extended from her shoulder to the tips of her knuckles. The pain did not subside after a few days, and the color of her hand began to fade. Her doctor removed the cast, revealing gangrene skin that looked like rotting peach flesh. Hazan required several surgeries from an orthopedic surgeon at a hospital in the family’s native Italy, forcing them back to Cesenatico, the fishing town where Hazan (nee Polini) was born. Her hand refused to be fully straightened from that point on, but – thank God – it worked well enough to hold the knife.
For many years, Hazan’s experience in the kitchen was limited to menial household chores. During the war, she would prepare gruel from mulberry leaves, water and polenta flour to fatten pigs for slaughter. She pursued studies in biology and natural sciences at the University of Ferrara, with plans to become a teacher. Only when she met her future husband, a quietly charismatic Italian-born named Victor Hazan, in the early 1950s did her interests in cooking deepen. Food stimulated Victor, and he cooked a lot. Meanwhile, Hazan only knew how to make porridge for pigs.
Victor and Hazan married in 1955, and Victor’s parents persuaded him to join them in New York and work for his father’s fur business. Hazan was upbeat that day, in September, when she took a taxi from Manhattan to Victor’s apartment in Forest Hills, Queens. But she soon felt the weight of everything she had left behind in Italy. One hurdle was feeding herself. During her early days in America, she took Victor Hazan to a café. Although he was a man of well-developed palate, he also knew how to enjoy the simple tasting pleasures of America. When the ketchup was poured over the hamburger meat, I was stunned. She couldn’t fathom the American impulse to contaminate a plate with such sweet sludge. She was also stunned by American supermarkets, because her products and meat were choked with plastic. Poor tomatoes were subjected to bad chemical practices in America – gassing, transporting long distances, then speeding back to life like zombies. To Hazan’s shock, some foods were equal frozen.
There was only one way to survive in this country: learn to cook. She turned to “Il talismano della felicità” (“The Mantra of Happiness”), a book by Italian food writer Ada Boni, whose words brought her back to the home she missed. Hazan started modestly, with a stew made with potatoes and leeks, or cannellini and parsley. She made her way to frying, wrapping slices of zucchini MixtureA mixture of flour and water. Over time, she realized that inside her there was always a chef. Cooking came to her “when words come to the child when it is time to speak,” she later wrote in her diary, “Amarcord.”
One of its gates was Pearls, a Manhattan Chinese restaurant frequented by Hazan. She takes a Chinese cooking class, where a group of curious students convince Hazan to teach them Italian cooking. “I told Victor, American women, they’re crazy,” she recalled telling her husband. But he encouraged her. In 1969, she began hosting lessons once a week outside the family’s apartment, now in Manhattan. Some of her students were unaccustomed to eating ingredients such as lamb kidneys. Others don’t want to touch raw squid. Hazan saw each class as its own battle. If you can only get one student to move the calamari into her risotto, you will win a small battle.
By 1970, her classes had caught the attention of Craig Claiborne, food editor at timeswho requested an interview. Knowing the stakes were high, Hazan prepared dishes like upside-down artichokes, tortelloni with Swiss chard and ricotta, and veal rolls filled with pancetta and Parmesan cheese. Her magic worked, and the resulting half-page story earned her a bevy of new prospective students. A year later, Hazan received a call from Peter Mollman, an editor at Harper & Row, asking if she had ever considered writing a cookbook. She said no. You can hardly write in English. But Victor, having heard the conversation, insisted that he would be able to translate for it. Her book The Classic Italian CookbookAndReleased in the spring of 1973. Two hundred and fifty recipes focused on the cuisines Hazan knew best, those of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany. She wrote in her preface: ‘The first useful thing to know about Italian cooking is that, as such, it really does not exist’ “The cooking of Italy is really the cooking of its regions, regions which until 1861 were separate, independent and usually hostile countries.”
For Hazan, it seems that Harper and Rowe don’t do much to draw attention to the book. This gave Victor a bold idea. He wrote a letter to Julia Child, asking how it could generate more publicity. Childe introduced Hazan to her Knopf editor, Judith Jones, whom Hazan found very charming at first—her husky voice made her sound American, Hazan thought. Jones helped Hazan ditch her contract with Harper & Row, and Knopf reissued The Classic Italian Cookbook in 1976. But the relationship between the two women soured when they collaborated on Hazan’s second cookbook, More Classic Italian Cooking (1978). While traveling through Italy documenting recipes with a recording device, Hazan sought to represent “the original language of the cuisine that is spoken in Italy today,” she wrote. But Jones didn’t understand what was so Italian in preparations as cauliflower gratin in béchamel sauce. “It’s just old cauliflower with a white sauce, so tacky,” Hazan later recalled Jones telling her. “There is nothing Italian in that.” Hazan disagreed. bechamel oh balm, was an essential part of the repertoire of Italian home cooks, found in layered dishes such as Bell And lasagna Bolognese. To make the cauliflower dish, I tossed the sliced greens in a smooth sauce tickled with Parmesan cheese and nutmeg, then covered the mixture with more Parmesan cheese and baked until an amber crust forms. When Hazan wondered, has an American like Jones become the judge of what food is and what isn’t Italian? The women teamed up again but eventually parted ways.
Many immigrant chefs and cookbook writers in history were underappreciated in their day, or became famous during their lifetime only to be forgotten in public memory after their death. Hazan, of course, is not one of those chefs. At the height of her career, she became so famous that Bloomingdale’s set up a storefront on 59th Street called Marcella Hazan’s Italian Kitchen, stocking it with homemade pasta Bolognese and Tuscany extra virgin olive oil. For her 1997 book, “Marcella Cucina,” Harper Collins gave her an advance of six hundred and fifty thousand dollars, higher than any American cookbook reported at the time. In the years following her death, in 2013, Hazan’s stature can be said to have only grown. Younger generations of chefs to this day still swear by the simplicity of what, in her first book, she called “Tomato Sauce 3,” an economical recipe that required four ingredients cooked in a pot. Its name—like Emeril or Nigella, and often just Marcella—has become synonymous with the ease and appeal of Italian cooking.
However, Hazan had the same pragmatism and perseverance that allowed many immigrant chefs of her day, including those the world does not remember today, to leave an imprint on the way America cooks and eats. When Knopf declined to submit her 1992 book Basics of Classic Italian Cooking for consideration at the James Beard Awards, she submitted the book herself and won the Best Italian Cookbook category. She had been an avid smoker since her teens, eventually developed emphysema, and had not learned to write well in English. But with Victor as her creative partner – and her daily lunch companion – she continued to work into the last decade of her life, from their home in Longboat Key, Florida. Most of all, Hazan has remained honest about the fact that she has been involved in the food profession. “Baby, I’ve never done anything in my life that I wasn’t asked to do,” she once told NPR, in her thick and unmistakable Italian accent. “It wasn’t my idea, ever.”
Cauliflower gratin with béchamel sauce
Excerpted with permission from “More Classic Italian Cooking” by Marcella Hazan.
- 1 medium sized small head cauliflower
- Medium thick bechamel sauce (recipe follows)
- ¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- ⅛ teaspoon. grated nutmeg
- 2 tbsp. butter
1. Wash the cauliflower in cold water, trim the base of the stalk, and pull out and discard all the large, tough outer leaves. Cut it into 4 wedges.
2. Boil 3 to 4 liters of unsalted water. Put the cauliflower. When the water returns to a boil, cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Then drain.