If your family enjoys a home-cooked “Italian night” at least once a week, you can probably thank Marcella Hazan. And if you are going to thank Hazan, be sure to thank her husband, too.
Hazan, considered by some as one of the most influential Italian cooks in the United States and Britain, has made certain, through six classic cookbooks and nearly four decades of classes, that her followers understand the taste of Italian cooking beyond spaghetti and meatballs.
And now Hazan has selected the best stories from her own life to present Amarcord: Marcella Remembers with all the warmth and humor of a long meal in famiglia made from the choicest ingredients.
Hazan never set out to have her name associated Italian cooking. Born in Egypt, her family resettled in her father’s native Italy, where her early teen years were overcome by World War II. Seeking refuge they fled to Lake Garda, which also turned out to be Mussolini’s headquarters. Bombings were a regular occurrence. Surviving those and finding enough food to eat dominated all else. (One barnyard chicken the family was trying to corner for dinner became the hapless victim of flying shrapnel.)
While terrifying encounters with soldiers and the stresses of war are sobering in these early chapters of her memoir, Hazan’s vigorous and entertaining tales from her youth are a delight to read. “[I]t was life,” she writes, “and I threw myself around it because I could not think past it.”
Later, in the process of pursuing a doctorate in natural science (she failed her zoology exams three times), she meets Victor, an Italian Jew who had moved to America with his family to escape the war. He had returned to Italy as a young man to reconnect with his roots, ponder literature and art, and consume great food.
As their friendship progressed, Hazan was puzzled that Victor mostly wanted to talk about food. Meals blended into Hazan’s life like a stunning sunset – remarkable but everyday normal. Up to this point, she hadn’t thought much about the food she ate. Neither did she think much about its preparation. Her culinary skills had been mostly utilitarian (fattening a pig for slaughter, for example).
But food for Victor was a poetic experience. He loved her mother’s messicani (veal roll-ups) and her father’s sweet wines. And soon, despite objections from his family in New York, they married.
It was through Victor, and the course their joined lives would take, that food became the dominant creative force in the Hazan household.
The Hazans soon realized that despite the riches of a life centered on good food and appreciating beautiful things, one needs more to survive. So Victor headed home to Manhattan to join his father’s fur business. Hazan soon followed only to face what challenges so many immigrant brides: cooking in a strange land.
Finding standard Italian ingredients (olive oil, Parmigiano, pancetta, artichokes, and fava beans) required extra effort. And the traditional long Italian lunch was considered a joke in industrious America.
After a brief stint working in a lab, while Victor pursued a career in advertising, Hazan remained at home preparing meals and caring for their infant son. Life became dull for the little family. Soon Victor decided what they all needed was to move back to Italy, beginning a series of transatlantic relocations that ultimately have come to rest in Longboat Key, Fla., where the Hazans now live.
But this cross-pollinating is exactly what enabled them to bloom in both cultures and introduce regional Italian cooking to thousands of Americans.
After one relocation to New York, Hazan began teaching cooking in her apartment to her fellow classmates in a Chinese cooking class on a whim. What started out as six classes, stretched to nearly a whole year and then finally to an entire life devoted to teaching Italian cuisine.
Hazan’s malapropisms – misunderstanding her students and vice versa – make her memoir sparkle with wit. She also faces her disappointments – a failed boutique, a blighted restaurant, relationships gone sour – with candor and wisdom.
Like her cookbooks, Hazan wrote out her memoir by hand. There are some wonderful, literary passages in “Amarcord.” And one cannot help but think that Victor, with his love of literature, background in advertising, and passion for food has added his own flair for words as he transcribed and translated Hazan’s Italian pennings. Undoubtedly, the unwritten subtext of this marriage has changed the course of American cuisine toward good.
If you’ve never been Italy, the time spent with Hazan will have you planning your next vacation faster than you can say manicotti.
Kendra Nordin is a Monitor staff editor.