Marcella Hazan: America's grandmother of Italian food

Marcella Hazan, who taught Americans to love and cook Italian food, will be remembered for her dry wit, wisdom, and really good pasta sauce.

Chris O'Meara/AP/File
Marcella Hazan posed in the kitchen of her Longboat Key, Fla., home. Ms. Hazan, the Italian-born cookbook author taught generations of Americans how to create simple, fresh Italian food.

Marcella Hazan, the author of six cookbooks on Italian cooking and the reason most Americans have a taste for pasta, died Sept. 29 at her home in Longboat Key, Fla.

Before I had heard the news, I had decided last night to make a simple tomato sauce to go over fresh mushroom ravioli. A couple heirloom tomatoes that I had picked up from the farmer's market the week before were threatening to spoil and this was the perfect quick use for them. The process was simple: I sautéed diced onion in butter in a sauce pan until they softened, chopped up the tomatoes and added them to the onions, seasoned everything with salt, laid in a bay leaf, and then let it simmer for about a half an hour, occasionally stirring and mashing the larger chunks of tomato with the back of wooden spoon until the sauce was the consistency to my liking.

Spooning the sauce over the ravioli and topped with grated Parmesan when I took a bite I wondered why I even bother to buy jars of tomato sauce. This kind of simplicity and awareness of how easy and delicious freshly prepared Italian food can be is the direct result of Ms. Hazan, an accidental teacher of Italian cooking to thousands of Americans.

Hazan helped to expand the American definition of Italian beyond spaghetti with dark tomato sauce. She emphasized simplicity and never tired of wining her husband's approval and celebration over a delicious dish.

Born in Egypt Hazan grew up in her father's native Italy as the country was overcome by World War II. Later, in the process of pursuing a doctorate in natural science (she failed her zoology exams three times), she met Victor Hazan, 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.

In a 2008 Monitor review of her memoir "Amarcord: Marcella Remembers," it is clear that Victor was a significant influence in Hazan's destiny of becoming the mother of Italian cooking in the United States:

"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."

After relocating to Manhattan so Victor could join his father's fur business, Hazan faced 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 at home 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....

"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 always wrote out her cookbooks in longhand in Italian, relying on Victor to translate them into English and get them ready for print. They did the same for her memoir.

On Hazan's Facebook page on Sunday, Victor posted a simple tribute for her legions of fans: "She was the truest and the best, and so was her food."

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