Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Culinary Icon

If you don't know who the woman is in this photo, you probably don't know much about Italian food.  Marcella Hazan died on Sunday in Florida.  Known as the woman who introduced true Italian food to Americans, her simple, everyday approach to food was a welcome respite from the red sauce Italian that we were seeing in so-called Italian restaurants. 
I had the privilege of taking several classes with Marcella when she came to San Diego in the early 70's after her book came out.  She looked and talked like my Nonna Aleandra, and she cooked like her too.  Having grown up with a first generation Italian mother, I was the kid who took veal cutlet sandwiches to school for lunch, and the tuna fish salad my mom made was with olive oil poached tuna, not that watery junk that Charlie sells.  Having been teased unmercifully by classmates, as a young Navy wife, I was a bit reluctant to cook Italian for our friends, since I wasn't sure what the reaction would be. 
But Marcella changed all that for me --- standing at the front of the class room, cigarette in hand, she chain smoked through the entire class, ordered around her assistant (whose name escapes me now, but she looked like Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein) she berated the quality of the ingredients that she was given---not the right olive oil, not the right ham, not the right pasta---who'd heard of De Cecco in 1976?  I turned to my friend and said, "she cooks like my grandmother"---my friend then said, then you need to cook for us like this!  And so it began....
Today I am a dual citizen of Italy and the US, proud of the Italian heritage that has given me a love of food, family and community and I get to teach students about Italian foods. 
I'm not Marcella, far from it, she was one of a kind, but I know that I am a crusader for organic sustainable produce, authentic products from indigenous regions, biodynamic wines, and meats raised without antibiotics and hormones. 
I love this photo of her with her husband Victor, he translated all her books from Italian to English, and here he is slicing truffles over her risotto.  Notice that she's not telling him how to do it, she's just looking at him with love--and that's what Italian food is all about, love. 
This is my favorite quote from an article written in 2004:

In 2004, Marcella Hazan wrote, "Simple doesn't mean easy. I can describe simple cooking thus: Cooking that is stripped all the way down to those procedures and those ingredients indispensable in enunciating the sincere flavor intentions of a dish."
Hazan said the Roman dish spaghettini aio e oio — thin spaghetti with garlic, oil, parsley, chili pepper and nothing else — embodies the simple-yet-complex nature of Italian food. Dishes should nourish and please, she added, not "dazzle guests with my originality or creativity."
"I am never bored by a good old dish and I wouldn't shrink from making something that I first made fifty years ago and my mother, perhaps, fifty years before then," she wrote. "I don't cook 'concepts.' I use my head, but I cook from the heart, I cook for flavor."

Rest in peace, Marcella, I know the table in heaven is full of delicious food and the kitchen is echoing with your wisdom. 

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