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The Godmother of Italian Cooking

Learn the story of Marcella Hazan and how she brought Italian food the American dinner table.

Whether its late-night pizza shared with friends or home-cooked pasta with family, Italian food has become a staple for many Americans. While the integration of Italian restaurants in American society began in the 1880s, Italian cuisine did not makes its way into mainstream American households until the 1970s. Marcella Hazan and her first book, Classic Italian Cookbook (1973) is considered the leading figure for introducing Americans to Italian cooking.

Born April 15, 1924 to parents Maria Leonelli and Guiseppe Polini, Marcella grew up in Cesenatico in Emilia-Romagna. At the age of seven, Marcella suffered a broken right arm while at the beach in Alexandria, Egypt. The physician who attempted to set her arm did it so poorly Marcella contracted gangrene. After taking a boat back to Italy, her family brought her to the best specialist in Bologna. However, after multiple procedures and months in the hospital, the young girl was left with a partially lame arm.

This tragic event would have restricted many from engaging in physical activities, but not Marcella. Though she was always conscious of her deformity, she refused to let it stop her from living her life. Her favorite pastime was to spend the day at the beach with friends, swimming out farther than anyone and challenging the boys to diving contests. It was at the beach that Marcella’s love of food began.

In her book Amacord: Marcella Remembers (2008), Marcella recounts falling in love with the aroma of the sea. Particularly when the anglers would sail into port with the day’s catch. After a long day at sea, the men would cook Saraghine, a small sardine-like fish. Marcella would join them and learned the only way to eat the meal properly was to pucker your lips as if trying to kiss the flesh off the fish.

Italy’s towns back then were essentially self-sustaining. After years of civil unrest, regions learned to fend for themselves. Marcella’s family and others of that time owned chickens for eggs, harvested their own grain for flour, and raised pigs to create sausage and prosciutto. Life was simple then, until war came to Italy. It was during the hardships of World War II when Marcella truly began to appreciate the comfort a full plate of food provides. 

When World War II broke out in Italy, her family fled to her uncle Tonino’s farm. Having little more than the clothes on their back and thin sheets to get them through the cold nights, Marcella’s family began a state of survival that would last years. The days of dreaming about summer fun at the beach were over. Marcella had to live each day in the present. 

If it were not for the strength of her mother, Maria, her family would have collapsed. This was a time when common household items became more valuable than gold. Marcella’s family would harvest salt from seawater to barter for other common goods we take for granted today. Without fail, Maria would cook hot food for her family. In her book, Marcella describes how air raids would hit during a meal and everyone would run to the cellar, except her mother. Maria would stay behind covering the food from the plaster shattered by the explosions. Maria knew that without the comforts of food her family would crumble into the chaos of war. She risked her own life to protect such a necessity.

While air raids traumatized their nights, during the day, Fascist soldiers would raid their home in search of food to feed their army. Life in war-torn Italy was excruciatingly hard. Fear was ever-present. Yet when it came time to watch her mother cook, Marcella would find peace in the aromas from the kitchen.

As the War continued, Marcella craved a sense of normalcy. Being of the age to attend university, she pleaded with her parents to let her go into the city to obtain a degree in the Natural Sciences. Her father would not allow her to take the train due to the dangers that existed with such travel. Instead, they found a friend who would drive her to town to speak with the University counselor.  When she arrived, she found classes were cancelled. She pleaded with the professor to allow her to pursue her degree in Natural Sciences. Eventually, he agreed and she could study from home. The only thing that might cause a problem was the necessity to work with a real human skeleton for part of her curriculum. 

This young woman had endured incredible hardships in her life! The notion that a skeleton would be the only thing to get in her way was unimaginable, so she set out in search of one. It did not take long until she found an old science teacher who was willing to let her borrow his skeleton. However, he would not lend her the skull, as it was too delicate and valuable. She would have to find her own. Being driven and relentless in her search for a skull, she went straight to a graveyard. Upon finding the gravedigger, and handing him a letter from the university, she received a freshly dug up skull. 

After a few hours of cleaning the cranium, she had a fine specimen to study. Yet she could not help but laugh at the fact it looked as though the skull had a mustache. In fact, she found it so humorous she sent a letter to a friend depicting the mustached head. A few days later, German soldiers who had intercepted her letter confronted Marcella. She was now a person of interest in the beheading of a German officer who had a mustache! The state police prosecuted her, and she faced forty years in prison. After showing the skull to the court and stating it was all in the pursuit of knowledge, the judge released her and told her to continue her studies! 

When hostilities ceased, Marcella’s troubles were seemingly ending, or so one would believe. The Partisans began rounding up supporters of the Fascist movement and imprisoning them under extremely harsh conditions. 

One day her mother had Marcella bring bread over to the prisoners as a simple act of humanity and kindness. Soon afterwards, there was a knock at the door and Partisan soldiers entered and demanded Marcella be made an example of. They were restraining her and about to shave her head and poor acid on her scalp so she would never be able to grow hair again. Her uncle barged in and ordered the men to leave. Surprised they listened to her uncle, she avoided this torture, and the men left immediately. Unknown to her, her uncle Tonino had been an important member of the Partisan underground during the War. The Partisans recognized him as the underground member known for inviting German officers to his estate to dine and relax; all the while extracting information from them that he immediately gave to the Partisan forces. 

When the day came to leave the safety of the farmhouse and head back home, Marcella could not have been more relieved. Yet, returning to Cesenatico was bittersweet. The War had ravaged Cesenatico, and it left many parts of her hometown in ruins. Life would take a while to return the beauty and love war had taken from them. Marcella recounted that a Christmas meal “through the recaptured flavors of our cooking” had finally given her family the peace of mind they had lost during the hostilities.

A few years after the War ended, Marcella earned doctorates in Environmental Sciences and Biology. She began teaching at the local school and her trajectory toward a life in science was seemingly concrete. Then she met her husband, Victor Hazan. He was an American who came to Italy to rediscover his ancestral roots. They married in 1955 and decided to start a new life in America. She was leaving behind her family and homeland, going to an unfamiliar land, and having to learn a new language in her new country.  Her days were long and filled with confusion. Adapting to New York City was no easy task. She learned most of her English from television shows and baseball games. Having only ever cooked polenta mush for pigs she began to recount the many meals her mother had made over the years. Though ingredients were hard to come by and the idea of packaged meats made her stomach churn, the future Italian chef strived to cook classic Italian meals for her husband. American food made her grimace with distaste. Coming from a country that combined meats with hot spices, she was baffled that so many people could eat such sweet ketchup on top of a burger. There was however one American meal she savored, the baked ham. 

Her marriage to Victor consisted of many moves back and forth from Italy to America. While they would always maintain their primary residence in New York, the couple would variously live in many different Italian cities. This helped her to become familiar with different dishes from various Italian regions. Wherever Marcella and Victor spent time, she would find peace and joy in perusing the markets and creating dishes from the region. Back in America, she acquired a taste for Chinese food. The idea of pursuing cooking classes was not an initial thought to the two time doctoral graduate. Thankfully, for the rest of the world, she decided to take a Chinese cooking class. 

Half way through the course the instructor left to go back to China. Being the only ethnic woman in the class, the other students began asking her what kind of food she made at home. To her surprise, they begged her to continue the class and teach them the art of Italian cooking. She agreed, and her road to becoming the world’s most renowned teacher of Italian cooking began. 

Marcella’s classes started small, but soon word spread about her exciting and inspiring cooking courses. It did not take long for Craig Claiborne, a famous food writer with the New York Times, to write a feature article about her. Word continued to spread and soon Marcella signed a contract to write her first cookbook. 

She had always cooked on instinct, and the need to measure out everything she used was perhaps her greatest challenge. With some hard work and Victor’s helps as her English translator, she produced her first book within one year, The Classic Italian Cookbook.

Shortly after publication, the book became a bestseller and soon enough, Marcella was touring America, giving TV and radio interviews. With the financial stability that comes with a popular selling book, Marcella decided to create her own cooking school in Bologna. People from around the world came to her school, to not only learn about Italian cooking, but also to experience the traditions and culture that created such marvelous dishes. 

When Marcella passed away on September 29, 2013, she had gifted the United States an entirely new style of creative cooking. Her son, Giuliano Hazan, still carries on the traditions his mother instilled in him. Giuliano is a world-renowned chef, and he has written several of his own highly popular cookbooks. Like his mother, a true advocate for learning the art of fine cuisine, he continues to give cooking classes all over the world. 

Bibliography:

  1. Hazan, Marcella. Amacord: Marcella Remembers. New York, Penguin Group, 2008.
  2. Hazan, Marcella. The Classic Italian Cookbook. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1973
  3. Hazan, Giuliano. Thirty Minute Pasta. Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2009.

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