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Long View: Marcella Hazan Brings Italy To America

Marcella and Victor Hazan in the kitchen of their home in Longboat Key, Fla.
Laura Krantz
Marcella and Victor Hazan in the kitchen of their home in Longboat Key, Fla.

When Marcella Hazan came to the United States in 1955, one of her first priorities was figuring out how she would feed her husband, Victor. The American grocery stores, with all their canned goods and prepackaged foods, were a far cry from the markets of her Italian homeland, where fresh produce, meats and fish were easy to find.

"I never saw a supermarket in Italy," she tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "The chicken, they were arriving from the farmer and they were alive. And at the supermarket they were very dead; they were wrapped; it was like a coffin. Everything was not natural."

Despite limited ingredients -- and her limited English -- she did her best to re-create Italian food as she remembered it. And, in doing so, she tapped into a previously unknown talent -- cooking.

Growing up, she didn't have much interest in food. She saw it mainly as fuel -- getting her through the day and all the activities she enjoyed. But she did not know how to cook and wasn't interested in learning. Her interest lay in the sciences -- at university she studied biology, and she took a teaching position after graduation.

But meeting her future husband changed all that. Victor Hazan was an American who had been born in Italy and lived there as a child. He had returned to Italy to write -- and to eat. This was a man who loved food so much, he began planning his next meal before he'd finished the one he was eating.

"He was always talking about food," Marcella remembers. "For me, a young woman, you think that someone who courts you would talk about other things, not food. Especially when you're not interested in food."

Nevertheless, Victor successfully wooed Marcella. They married and remained in Italy for a short six months before his parents called him back to New York to help with the family business. They settled in the suburbs of Forest Hills, where Marcella learned to cook out of necessity.

She was encouraged by her success re-creating favorite foods from home, and Marcella found herself becoming more interested in cooking.  She signed up for a Chinese cooking course -- a cuisine that she found to be similar to Italian with its pasta dishes and layers of flavor.

A month into the course, the teacher suddenly had to return to China. Marcella's classmates, eager for another class to take, asked Marcella if she would consider teaching them to cook Italian food.

She recalls getting home that day and saying to Victor, "American women are crazy. Look what they asked me."

He replied, "Well, you complain that you don't know what to do, that you have free time -- why don't you do it?"

Her first cooking classes led to a profile by The New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne. That, in turn, led to more classes and eventually brought a book publisher to Marcella's doorstep. He asked her if she had thought about writing a cookbook, and she replied that she had not. When the publisher asked why not, she replied, "Because I don't write in English."

It was Victor who convinced Marcella that a cookbook was possible. He would act as her translator and editor, and would check the recipes that his wife made up from scratch. As he edited and rewrote, he picked up on details that she sometimes overlooked.

Marcella says Victor would often come into the kitchen as she was cooking and interrupt her. "I don't know," he'd point out. "All the string beans that I eat in this house -- they don't have both ends."

"Of course they don't have both ends," she'd reply. "I took them out."

"But you didn't write that," he'd say.

Back and forth they went, haggling over small points. But in the end, the attention to detail is what made Marcella's cookbooks -- The Classic Italian Cookbook and six others -- so easy for people to use.

Those recipes even saved a few romances. A women's magazine ran Marcella's "Roast Chicken with Lemons." The article got an overwhelming number of responses, including a large number from women who said, "I made this dish for my boyfriend and he proposed."

The magazine re-ran the recipe, calling it "Engagement Chicken."

Those newly engaged couples had a model in Marcella and Victor.  They've now been married for almost 55 years, working partners for most of that time. Their partnership has resulted in six cookbooks, cooking schools in both the U.S. and in Italy, and a revolution in the way Americans cook -- and eat -- Italian food.

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