Marcella Hazan died this weekend, just a few days after I wrote about her tomato sauce and how she was the Italian nonna (grandma) I never had.
Who was Marcella Hazan? If you want the chronology of her long life and a partial list of her many accomplishments, check out Kim Severson’s article in the New York Times. In brief, she was an amazing and opinionated woman who knew what worked when it came to cooking and who didn’t change her views or her cooking to garner favor with anyone or become part of a popular movement. Before it was fashionable, Marcella Hazan advocated using the best ingredients prepared simply to create home cooked meals that will knock your socks off.
I don’t own hardcover copies of her cookbooks, just two yellowed paperbacks from my own mom “The Classic Italian Cookbook” and “More Classic Italian Cooking.” No photographs and small print, they certainly don’t look like much, sitting on my bookshelf alongside far bigger and more beautiful tomes. But I treasure those paperbacks. And, as my post last Friday attests, I’m much more likely to pull them out for a consultation than some of my fancier cookbooks with shiny pages and color photographs.
Although Marcella Hazan provides detailed explanations, suggestions, and commentary in her cookbooks, she writes the way she cooks – simply. I never have to wonder what she meant or wish that she had provided a clearer explanation of a technique I’ve never tried before.
I may not always agree with her, and I certainly don’t live up to her standards but I’d much rather forgive myself and keep reading her recipes, than to look elsewhere when I need to know how to prepare a classic dish in her repertoire. (When I read the Chapter Sauces in “The Classic Italian Cookbook,” I have to cringe. “I can’t imagine anyone with a serious interest in food using anything but homemade mayonnaise.” – Oh dear, say I thinking of the bottle of Hellman’s in my refrigerator and the last time I made homemade, which was decades ago. Still I keep reading because her recipe for the homemade variety is so sensible and her tips so helpful that I may actually try to make it again.)
Where other chefs and cooking teachers try to impress with fancy ingredients and complicated recipes, she always stayed true to her core philosophy. If you’ve ever tasted Bolognese-style meat sauce made with Marcella Hazan’s recipe, you know that unpretentious can also be incomparable. Simple does not always mean quick; that sauce simmers for a minimum of 3½ – 4 hours. Then again, she doesn’t do slow for its own sake; she also has a recipe for pasta with tomato and fresh basil sauce (the one that I adapted) that cooks up in less than 30 minutes.
I do not aspire to be her. I do, however, aspire to spread her philosophy on what she called the “art of eating.”
The finest accomplishments of the home cook are not reserved like the good silver and china for special occasions or for impressing guests, but are offered daily for the pleasure and happiness of the family group.”
And because I like to have the last word, I’ll add – the family “group” can be a crowd gathering at the dinner table, or two, or even just the cook. If the food is home made and put on the plate with love, no matter what the meal or occasion, and no matter who or how many are being served, it provides much more than vitamins and minerals.