(A similar version of this post appeared on American Food Roots)
There was no Julia in our house when I was growing up. My Italian-born mother was always a bit suspicious of the large woman with the warbly voice who so enthusiastically preached the art of French cooking.
But from the time her first cookbook, The Classic Italian Cook Book: The art of Italian cooking and the Italian art of eating was published in 1973, there was always Marcella.
Marcella Hazan, who taught millions of Americans how to cook Italian food at home, died Sunday at age 89. Her death saddens me more than I imagined it would. I have been cooking from her books for decades, long before I had any idea that I would pursue a career in cookbook writing myself. And although I never met her, I always felt a little bit like I knew her because she reminded me of other Italian women of a certain generation who shaped my life—most notably my own mother.
Marcella and my mother, Gabriella, were contemporaries, both born in 1924 and raised in pre-World War II Italy on the Adriatic coast, Marcella in the town of Cesenatico, in Emilia-Romagna, and my mom farther south in the city of Chieti and, in summer, the seaside villages of Abruzzo.
Sunday night before bed, I started flipping through Amarcord, Marcella Hazan’s memoir, which I first read when it was published in 2008. Her account of her early years—carefree days spent at the beach with her “comitiva,” (group of friends), playing pranks, and bicycling around coastal towns that had yet to become the built-up resorts that they are today—could almost have been written by my mom.
Both women came to the U.S. in the mid-1950s, and, dismayed by what passed for Italian cooking, taught themselves how to cook to feed their new husbands. They relied on what they absorbed from their own childhoods, and on the recipes of Ada Boni, whose tome “Il Talismano della Felicita,” first published in 1928, taught generations of Italian women how to cook.
By the time The Classic Italian Cook Book was published, my mother was already accomplished in the kitchen, thanks to Boni and to her other trusted sources—La Cucina Italiana, Italy’s premier cooking magazine, to which she subscribed for many years, and Pellegrino Artusi, Italy’s revered 19th century authority on gastronomy. But when my father brought her home a copy of Marcella’s book, my mom promptly made room on her shelf, and kept on doing so with every subsequent book published.
She agreed with almost all of Marcella’s pronouncements, such as: “Italians would find any discussion of something called ‘salad dressing’ very puzzling…Dressing is a process rather than an object, a verb rather than a noun,” and “Ah, pasta, what sins have been committed in thy name!”
When I moved to Detroit as a young woman to take a job as a newspaper reporter, my mother gave me my own copy of The Classic Italian Cook Book,with this inscription, dated May 1990: “To my dearest daughter Domenica, great cook—Marcella is one of my favorites and I’m sure will also be yours. Have fun! Much love, Mamma.”
My mother has always been my primary go-to source for Italian cooking, but Marcella remains a close second. And while her tomato sauce made with butter is among her most famous and beloved recipes, I am partial to her simple ways with fish and vegetables.
On Monday when I called my mom, I thought about asking whether she had heard the news. At 89, my mother still cooks dinner for my dad almost every night, though in the last year an arthritic knee has made the ritual increasingly difficult. I decided to keep it to myself, and as I listened to her talk about her plans for the day—physical therapy, possibly a nice dish of pasta for her and my dad—I said a silent prayer of thanks.
Note: While I never had the pleasure of meeting Marcella Hazan, I have become friendly in recent years with her son, Giuliano, a distinguished cookbook author and cooking teacher in his own right. Here’s a Q&A with Giuliano Hazan that I posted in 2012.