An interview with Marcella Hazan

Marcella Hazan featured in 1992 Vogue Entertaining

Normally I can put together a post here pretty quickly but this one has had me a little nervous.

Marcella Hazan is one of the most highly respected food writers in the world. She is credited with teaching America about real Italian food, much as Elizabeth David before her, is credited with introducing the flavours of the Mediterranean to England in the post war years.

About 20 years ago I sent Marcella a letter.

After travelling through Italy in 1985 I’d seen my first blood orange and discovered that parmesan cheese actually didn’t come pre-grated in a shaker tin smelling like vomit – it was actually an Italian institution, flavoursome, cut fresh from the round and a fundamental ingredient found in every Italian kitchen. I can still see my Italian friend at the time lovingly using his nona’s cheese grater – to this day an heirloom in his family. It was a revelation and when I returned home to Australia, I took up cooking. Marcella’s Classic Italian Cookbook was one of the first cookbooks I ever bought. The Second Classic Italian Cookbook made it on to my shelf soon after and before long I was experimenting with making my own pasta and strawberry gelato, trying to recreate the wonderful food I’d experienced in Italy.

And then in 1992, Marcella was featured in Australian Vogue Entertaining.

1992 Vogue Entertaining cover featuring Marcella Hazan

So I thought I’d drop her a line to say hi. As you do.

And also to see if I could buy one of her signature aprons.

Marcella Hazan apron

In the article it actually described where she and her husband Victor lived in Venice: “In a narrow calle, near Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo.”

Article on Marcella Hazan in 1992 Australian Vogue Entertaining

So I pulled out my Italian grammar books (because I was also going to teach myself Italian after the trip … ahem … yes about that..) and translated that on to the envelope (try to imagine a bit of eye ball rolling from Steve at this point)…

To: Marcella Hazan
in una calle stretta nei pressi di Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo
Venizia, Italia.

I sent it off

(and to be honest)

I thought that would probably be the last of it.

Well…

about three months later look what arrived …

Marcella Hazan's letter

Not only had my letter found her (in that narrow alley off the piazza) but she was enchanted to receive it. (Stick that in your cannelloni Steve) Enchanted!

“Tomorrow, my husband and I are leaving for Ireland where I am holding a weekend session of Italian cooking, while my husband will do afternoon tastings of Italian wines. We won’t be back in Venice until the end of July and soon after I shall mail you one of my aprons. I don’t sell them so, if you don’t mind, I shall send one of my used ones, washed and pressed of course.” 

And true to her word, about three months later, a parcel arrived in downtown Duckmaloi.

Marcella Hazan's apron

This was back in the days when you actually had to wait for things. This gift from afar felt so special and I was blown away by Marcella’s generosity to indulge a young woman on the opposite side of the world.

It still holds pride of place in my kitchen. Washed and pressed of course 🙂

Marcella Hazan's apron at home

Anyway, I’d had this thought since I started the blog, that it would be lovely to try and touch base again and perhaps do an interview.

Two letters in 20 years does not a stalker make.

Unable to find a contact for Marcella online, I sent a letter to her son Giuliano who passed it on and once again it was met with the most gracious of responses, this time from Victor. Marcella will be 89 in April and I mention this only because it makes me appreciate, even more, the time she has given to this project of mine.

During her career, in between running her cookery schools, she has written seven books in total and won some of the world’s most prestigious food writing awards. Her last book, written in 2008 is Armacord (Marcella remembers). In it, she pulls no punches. She is sharp and intelligent and as she says below, she doesn’t suffer fools. For me, and this is true of all her books, it has always been about the writing. The recipes are one thing but the way Marcella writes is another.

This is her dedication in Armacord. 

Marcella's dedication in Armacord

Beautiful no?

 

May I introduce Marcella Hazan.

 

Margaret: As a girl, who’s just turned 51, I am intrigued that your professional career Marcella, as a cooking teacher and writer, really started to take off at 49. I just assumed that cooking and writing had been a part of your life all along so it was fascinating to see it unfold. I’m also intrigued by the energy that you seem to have had for your various business ventures over those years. Most people are starting to think about winding down a bit in their 50s. You were the complete opposite. Were you driven by ambition or were you just having such an adventure with the whole cooking and writing experience that you were carried along…?  Do you think that coming to that whole world later in life, actually contributed to your success ie: being strong enough not to suffer late comers to classes etc …

Marcella: I wasn’t given time to think about it. I started teaching because six women in a Chinese cooking class asked me to do it, and I thought it’d be a lark. After Craig Claiborne published his long account of lunch with me and Victor, there was never any let-up. Taking my school to Bologna was a self-fulfilling idea based on the discovery that my students in the States had no clue to what real produce, good olive oil, flavorful eggs, fresh and varied seafood could be and no experience of the taste of true regional Italian cooking. My solution was to bring them to the source. I would have done all these things when I was 20 years younger if I had been given the opportunity. My mother, who taught French, was a strict disciplinarian and I take after her. I empathize with those who genuinely want to learn, but – like my mother – I do not suffer fools.

 

(Side note: While we ‘chat’ I thought I’d make some pasta, to show you how easy it is.)

The Classic Italian Cookbook Marcella Hazan

Margaret: Just on that, you never seemed to have an ounce of self doubt or a lack of confidence along the way? Is that an Italian thing, or have you always been quite self assured?  (I mean that as a compliment)

Marcella: When I began my life in the States, I was puzzled to hear people “looking to find themselves”, talking about wanting to know who they were. An Italian would not be in doubt, there is little ambiguity in Italian life except for what you might find in the plays of Pirandello and the films of Antonioni. The Italy I grew up in was a class society, and you could not doubt the class you belonged to. The modes of address, the tu and the lei, reinforced this. Identity was further strengthened by titles, which only if you were an intimate you could omit. Aside from titles of nobility, if you were a university graduate, for the rest of your life you’d be addressed as dottore, if you were a lawyer, avvocato (everyone referred to Gianni Agnelli as l’avvocato), an accountant would expect to be called ragioniere, etc. The grammar, with its clarity, its syntactical firmness, its explicit application of gender to all creatures, plants, and objects, is also a foundation of identity. It may no longer be as universal, but at one time one’s handwriting style provided clues to one’s social and educational background. For the most constant, reliable, daily affirmation of identity look no further than the taste and rhythm of regional family cooking.

Pasta recipe from the Essentials of Italian Cooking

Margaret: Victor, this one is for you… Is she as bossy at home as she with her students?  (smiling)  Does she like having you in the kitchen or is it out of bounds?

Victor: Marcella is not any more willful than other women. She used to be much more proprietary about her kitchen, but the physical impediments of her 88 years allow me on occasion to try my hand with her dishes.

flour and eggs equals pasta

Margaret: When those first cookbooks came out, it must have been a wonderful period. It was really breaking new ground in many ways. I’m thinking of Elizabeth David before you. Over the years I’ve watched the cookery book shelves in our local bookshop expand to bursting point. I was in there earlier in the week and there was this enormous volume from some chef packaged in a huge cake tin. Very smart of course but I’m looking at it, thinking, What is this? I’d need Steve’s help to lift it. What is your take on the growth of the chef as celebrity and the increase in cookbooks, particularly these huge coffee table books?  Are you excited by everyone’s interest in food these days? Do you have a big collection of cookbooks yourself?

Marcella: If I had kept every cookbook that came my way I would have to house them in a facility of their own. With few exceptions, the only books I keep are Italian-language collections of regional recipes. The ones I turn to regularly however are my own. I don’t mind how many other cookbooks are published as long as people continue to buy mine. As for chefs, I am in awe of the sacrifices their profession imposes on them. I wish however that chefs would cook more like home cooks and that home cooks would forget about emulating chefs.

flour and eggs

Margaret: How would you rate your skills cooking Chinese food and what is it about Chinese cooking that you love so much?

Marcella: It has been a long while since I cooked Chinese food. Cooking is like a language and you must live it regularly to achieve and maintain fluency. I love Chinese cooking because it is the cuisine that most parallels Italian values.

eggs mixed

Margaret:  One of the other things I loved about your story is the way that you and Victor have supported each other in your various roles over the years. Sometimes he would take the lead and other times it would be you. Do you think that that has been part of the reason for having such a long and happy relationship?

Marcella: We simply have never left each other in the lurch.

dough

Margaret: Do you still make your own pasta?

Marcella: Yes, it’s easy.

dough half way through

Margaret:  With all the success that you’ve enjoyed over the years, what are you most proud of now – as you look back?

Marcella: Italians generally don’t bother to feel “proud”, they assume that if what they have done is good it was to be expected.

the finished dough

Margaret: Do you miss Italy? Do you miss the markets, walking those streets and sitting in those cafes?  If so, what do you miss most?

Marcella: I miss everything, including the sound of my native tongue. I feel in exile, but the sunsets over the Gulf are spectacular and different every evening, the swaying palms are soothing, and my old body craves heat.

Hand rolled pasta

Margaret: If I could drop you back to Italy for a week or two what would be your dream itinerary? Where would you want to go? Are there any favourite little out of the way restaurants that you’d want to revisit?

Marcella: I have two hometowns, Venice and Cesenatico, and it is there that I’d like to be and eat. Out-of-the-way, obscure little Italian restaurants are media mythology. If a restaurant is obscure, there is a reason for it. I am inclined however to be skeptical of high ratings in guides, which are almost always influenced by trendiness.

The lightness of hand rolled pasta

Margaret: Is the best Italian food still to be found in the home?

Marcella: Yes, in some homes.

tagliatelle being cut

Margaret: And what about Florida? Has it treated you well? From a food and life perspective?

Marcella: Its medical skills let me accept its other shortcomings.

tagliatelle - cut and drying

Margaret: The desert island questions…

If you could take only Chinese or Italian cooking to a desert island what would you take?

If you could take only three meals to a desert island what would they be?

If Victor could take only three meals to a desert island what would they be?

If you could take only three ingredients what would you take? In other words, what could you not function without?

What would be your drink of choice as you sit watching the sun go down on your desert island?

If you could only take one of your cookbooks with you, which one would you take and why?

Marcella: Please, no media questions as Julia used to call them.

Marcella's cookbooks

Margaret: Do you still have a cooked meal at lunchtime together?  And a glass of wine?

Marcella: We have a freshly cooked meal with wine together each day at noontime.

 

A perfect image to finish on. One for the mind’s eye.

 

Grazie mille Marcella (and Victor) for once again indulging me. I think my bookshelf above says it all. Your books hold pride of place within it. I suspect I am not alone!

 

I’d like to leave you with a quote from Marcella’s Classic Italian Cookbook, winner of the Andre Simon Memorial Prize.

“The Italian comes to his table with the same open heart with which a child falls into his mother’s arms, with the same easy feeling of being in the right place.”  I’ve always loved that.

 

Marcella is active on facebook (go girl!) You can find her here 

 

Postscript: 1 October, 2013

Woke yesterday morning to the sad news that Marcella passed away on September 29. My birthday. I’ve never shared her response to this story before but in light of the many obituaries that mention her ‘prickly and uncompromising’ ways as Ruth Reichl points out in her lovely article showing Marcella’s kindness I’d like to take a leaf out of Ruth’s book and share this final piece. In the emails that we had going back and forth for the interview I mentioned to Marcella that I thought there might have been a mistake in the Second Classic Italian Cookbook. Trust me, I thought long and hard before I dared send it. I mean we are talking Marcella here! This was her response…

marcella feedback

 

To Victor and the Hazan family,
Please know that we are thinking of you at this very sad time.
She was an 
extraordinary girl.
Our hearts are with you.
Margaret, Stephen, Maddy & Darce xxxx

 

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    58 Comments

    1. Helen Dunne
      Posted 9 November 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Marg. I enjoyed the post and your excitement for Marcella.

      • Marg
        Posted 9 November 2012 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Helen x

    2. Posted 11 November 2012 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      What a fabulous interview and story. How incredible to reconnect with Marcella in such a way, and although I don’t cook you have both inspired me to start. That you sent that letter off into the world and that it found her is such a quirky chance of fate, I am like you that way, and have met so many incredible people just because I took the time to say hello!
      ciao lisa

      • Marg
        Posted 11 November 2012 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

        What? You’re married to an Italian and moving to Italy and you don’t cook!! You have to buy a copy of Marcella’s “Essentials of Italian Cooking” and take it with you. Thanks for stopping by Lisa. And thanks again for the support on facebook x

        • Posted 11 November 2012 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

          yep shocking I know, luckily he is a fantastic cook. It’s only in the last year that I have started learning and slowly getting the hang of it. Great to meet you, ciao lisa

          • Marg
            Posted 11 November 2012 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

            You too 🙂

    3. Posted 12 November 2012 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      What a great and inspiring interview and story behind it! ! Thank you Marg, xox

      • Marg
        Posted 12 November 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

        Glad you enjoyed it Eva. Do you have any of Marcella’s books?

        • Posted 12 November 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink

          Now it is very likely that soon I will have. I Already have started to check the internet for her cookbooks in German 🙂

          • Marg
            Posted 12 November 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink

            Well let me know what you think if you go ahead 🙂

    4. Alison Abbott
      Posted 12 November 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      Marg,
      What a wonderful story with such a lovely woman. Just goes to show you that you never know the answer unless you ask in the first place! I’m beginning to think that lesson should go to the top of my blogging inspiration board. Well done!
      Alison

      • Marg
        Posted 12 November 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

        Thank you Alison. I’m glad you got something from it 🙂

    5. Posted 16 November 2012 at 2:53 am | Permalink

      What a great story and so beautifully shared. I have just learned to make my own pasta and of course, I used the Hazan family’s method. Mrs. Hazan’s books are proudly displayed on my bookshelf. Lovely read; thank you for sharing. 🙂

      • Marg
        Posted 16 November 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

        Thanks Jean. To be honest I was a bit rusty in the pasta making department but it’s like riding a bike 🙂 And now I can’t stop making it.

    6. Posted 16 November 2012 at 3:15 am | Permalink

      thank you for such a lovely blog post on Marcella— she is inspiring–!

      • Marg
        Posted 16 November 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

        That she is Judy. Thanks.

    7. GRAEME ROBERTS
      Posted 16 November 2012 at 3:17 am | Permalink

      I was fortunate to have been on 2 courses with Marcella and Victor in Venice. I am so happy that I have been able to enjoy such superb food since then thanks to Marcella. I rarely eat out, because Marcella’s food is better than most restaurants.
      But, what I wanted to share is that, The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking was reprinted in hardback in Australia a couple of years ago. Its got a new pretty hard cover but still the same charming drawings inside, and, of course, the recipes

      • Marg
        Posted 16 November 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

        Now I’m jealous Graeme. I would have loved to have done a course in Venice with both Marcella and Victor. I’ve had the First and Second Classic Italian cookbooks since the mid 80s but I only bought the Essentials prior to doing the interview. It’s probably the one you’re talking about.

    8. Posted 16 November 2012 at 3:20 am | Permalink

      What a beautiful blog post. So glad Marcella shared it for the world to see and brought me here.
      Congratulations on a wonderful interview.
      Saluti,
      Barbara Giacometti

      • Marg
        Posted 16 November 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        So am I Barbara! Grazie. x

    9. Julia
      Posted 16 November 2012 at 3:28 am | Permalink

      This is truly one of the most lovely interviews I have ever read. You have inspired me to take out one of Marcella’s cookbooks this weekend and make something.

      • Marg
        Posted 16 November 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

        It’s been raining here overnight (and we needed rain) so I’m feeling inspired to cook some rainy comfort food from one of her books too. Thanks Julia, that was a very nice comment. x

    10. Posted 16 November 2012 at 3:48 am | Permalink

      I so enjoyed your blog post, Margaret! Thanks for writing so beautifully about two of my favorite people.

      • Marg
        Posted 16 November 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

        Glad you got to see it Deborah.

    11. Posted 16 November 2012 at 5:34 am | Permalink

      What a lovely piece; you capture Marcella very well indeed. It was she who inspired me to become a cooking teacher and food writer, and encouraged me to pursue it with gusto. Marcella quite simply changed my life, and has been a gracious mentor–one who does not let up.

      Once, discouraged and ready to call it quits, I told her as much and she looked at me with that dry look and quipped, “Well, I don’t know how much difference I make when you tell me you are going to give it up.”

      I didn’t.

      Thank you for this lovely visit with her.

      • Marg
        Posted 16 November 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        I know. She’s a cracker. Such a straight shooter. Nice story Damon.

    12. ursula bärtschi
      Posted 16 November 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

      ich bin begeistert….
      🙂
      ursula

      • Marg
        Posted 16 November 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        Ich bin zu aufgeregt! Is that right Ursula?

    13. Posted 16 November 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      Oh Marg this such a sensational interview with an amazing woman – I am a HUGE fan of hers. The power of letter-writing – I hope it never dies out!

    14. Wendy
      Posted 16 November 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      What a treasure of an interview! Thanks to both of you. And your pasta is gorgeous.

      • Marg
        Posted 16 November 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Wendy. I took a great deal of pleasure serving it up to my 15 year old son’s friends. And they took a great deal of pleasure eating it! x

    15. Posted 16 November 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      You really did a beautiful job on this post. Thank you so much.

      • Marg
        Posted 16 November 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

        Lovely of you to say so. Thanks Laura.

    16. Posted 2 December 2012 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      Greetings!

      Thank you for this post. I can only hope that some day, someone introduces and interviews me with the care and reverence you have shown. I have connected with her through Facebook via your link and am looking forward to trying some of her recipes on Mr. West. She reminded me of my own mother with the understanding that if one did well, it was expected and not something of pride. A most endearing interview. Thank you.

      • Marg
        Posted 2 December 2012 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

        Glad you enjoyed it Stacy and have now discovered Marcella. Hope you enjoy her recipes as much as we do. x

    17. Posted 1 October 2013 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      What a wonderfully authentic blog post. Thank you. I have been a fan of Marcella since I spotted The Classic Italian Cookbook in 1994. I always think of Marcella has having taught me how to cook Italian food. I bought the book because I thought I needed serious, authentic help to cook for my then Italian boyfriend now husband. It obviously worked in my favour since he always said he never could have married a woman who could not cook. Thank you Marcella.

      • Marg
        Posted 1 October 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

        Lovely story Edwina. So glad you found your way here and pleased you enjoyed the post. Here’s to many more happy Marcella meals.

    18. Posted 1 October 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      What a lovely and thoughtful piece with such great memories. Such a nice tribute to Marcella and her legacy.

      • Marg
        Posted 1 October 2013 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Gwen. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for taking the time to stop by.

    19. Posted 1 October 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      This was such a touching and inspiring read. Rip MH

      • Marg
        Posted 1 October 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

        Glad you enjoyed it Antara. I can’t get over the outpouring of love for her on the internet at her passing. Very special.

    20. Penelope
      Posted 1 October 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      This is so wonderful, and I absolutely love your photos. They have that shady look that food photography had in the 1970s and 80s, just like in my old Marcella Hazan recipe book! A nice touch and a lovely interview.

      • Marg
        Posted 1 October 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for dropping by Penelope, and for your lovely comment. Glad you enjoyed it.

    21. Posted 1 October 2013 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

      What a fascinating interview, and so too the story of the apron and of her response to the interview too.
      Wonderful.
      A wonderful way to remember her.

      • Marg
        Posted 1 October 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

        Yes, very special Kavey. I’m so glad you liked it. And be assured the apron and her books are still well loved and well used.

    22. Cheryl in France
      Posted 1 October 2013 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

      Wow. For 2 reasons- the apron (how much did you cry when you opened that package??) and something I didn’t know- she started at 49. 49!!!! I’m 43 and have often thought it would be ‘too late’ to try and make something of my cooking passion…

      now I’m scared.

      (great interview! :-))

      • Marg
        Posted 1 October 2013 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

        I know Cheryl. That was the part that blew me away. That she achieved so much in her professional career but started just shy of 50. You shouldn’t be scared. Be excited! Inspired! 🙂 Thanks for the feedback. Glad you liked it. x

    23. Lisa
      Posted 7 October 2013 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

      This is so lovely Margaret and I enjoyed reading it very much. Lisa x

      • Marg
        Posted 7 October 2013 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

        Ah thanks for stopping by Lisa. Glad you liked it. x

    24. Margaret
      Posted 12 October 2013 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

      Another treasure I have discovered in your blog, Marg. So glad I followed the link. Thank you.

      • Marg
        Posted 14 October 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

        I’m glad you found your way back here too Margaret xx

    25. Issi
      Posted 16 January 2014 at 3:35 am | Permalink

      Great interview, she was amazing and I bought her books with me when I came to live in Spain. I was searching for the following when I found your blog! Do you have a copy of the April/May Issue of that Vogue Entertaining Guide ? I am trying to find a recipe that was in that issue and my copy has disappeared in the move! I have subscribed to your posts. Thank you.

      • Marg
        Posted 20 January 2014 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Issi. Sorry for the delayed reply. Just back from a week on the coast. Yes, I still have that particular issue. What were you after? Thanks so much for subscribing. I hope you enjoy it. A warm welcome – literally – from a 38 degree day in Bathurst. I’m missing the sea breeze already 🙁

    26. Issi
      Posted 20 January 2014 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

      Marg, that is wonderful news! I have a faxed copy of what I want but it faded so much that now I can only read a few words, It is the Braised Leg of Lamb with Gremolata, I can almost read the page number it is, I think, 125?? My sister is coming with her husband from her home in Scotland, on Friday and I have a dinner for them and my Spanish ‘family’ on Saturday and would dearly like to make this dish.
      We had snow yesterday, unusual for inland Andalucía, it doesn’t happen every year!!
      Thank you again it is such a relief to finally find the recipe, it is a great one. You can email me direct if that helps.

      • Marg
        Posted 20 January 2014 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

        It’s on it’s way 🙂

    27. Lisa Hampshire
      Posted 15 November 2016 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      Grazi Mille…from me. A lovely narrative about life and I enjoyed the second reading perhaps more than the first.

      • Marg
        Posted 15 November 2016 at 10:47 am | Permalink

        Thanks Lisa. If you haven’t got any of Marcella’s books I’d recommend them x

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