I "discovered" Marcella Hazan, who died Monday at age 89, shortly after I got married. It was the autumn of 1988; I was 25 and a typical post-feminist bride in that I would look shocked at any suggestion from my new husband that I knew the right side of a vacuum cleaner or that I might be expected to get dinner on the table.
Fortunately, I was married to a typical post-feminist man, who had the sense not to suggest any such thing. We spent that first year of our married life renting a house in an off-season vacation town, financed by the advances we had each received to write books (because in 1988, writing a book was still a plausible ambition for a young person). In retrospect, what we were really doing was learning how to be married. And that is why I will be forever grateful for the influence of Marcella Hazan.
It was true then and it remains true now that very few people have the slightest idea what they are doing when they get married. Maybe that's always been the case. My generation, however, came of age in the 1970s, when pretty much every traditional institution had been left a smoking ruin. Marriage was as unfashionable and outdated as a bouffant. As young women, we were coached relentlessly about our careers, and discouraged from thinking too seriously or too much about marriage, let alone motherhood.
So when I fell into marriage at what seemed such a comparatively young age (NONE of my friends were getting married!) with a man only three years my senior, neither of us knew how to take to our new roles as husband and wife. Indeed, it was considered sexist to even assume there might be such roles. The result was that we were engaged in constant petty arguments over who would load/unload the dishwasher, and how meals might materialize at the table.
I'd always liked cooking (although as my husband likes to point out, you would've never known it from our courtship). Living in a small seaside town in which most businesses had shut down for the winter, it became clear that we could not subsist indefinitely on take-out sandwiches from the local deli. Nor could we afford to go to the few open restaurants more than a couple of times a month.
I can't remember how I came across Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cook Book (and later, More Classic Italian Cooking), but somehow it ended up in our kitchen. For those of you who don't know Hazan's books, think of her as the Julia Child of Italian cuisine: an authoritative former housewife who introduced Northern Italian cuisine to a generation accustomed to take-out pizza and spaghetti Bolognese.
Now here -- as I discovered then -- was real, basic and delicious food! I'd previously encountered zucchini as a soggy cube floating in a watery Minestrone soup. But with Hazan, it was crisp-fried in batter with a squeeze of lemon, or sauteed and then roasted with tomato and basil. Humble potatoes could be elevated in a dozen different ways: baked with porcini and fresh mushrooms "Riviera style," or braised with artichokes, or -- what became one of our favorite winter dishes -- roasted with Bluefish fillets, "Genoese style." When funds were tight, we did what every Italian peasant did -- we turned to pasta transformed by simple, inexpensive ingredients (spaghetti with slow-cooked smothered onions remains to this day one of our favorite dishes). I was struck, too, by how little meat looms in true Italian cooking. Hazan's delicate, even sweet, version of a Bolognese sauce was a light contrast to the heavy, tomato-y version encountered in traditional Italian restaurants. Her homemade lasagna resembled elegant pastry. And then there were her stews -- again economical, most often using the cheaper and tastier cuts of meat, bulked out with an exotic combination of vegetables and seasonings (i.e., lamb shoulder stew with green beans and vinegar).
The other remarkable aspect of Hazan's book was how, almost incidentally, it taught one to cook. Very few of the recipes were complex or time-consuming. As noted, most relied on very basic ingredients. Making a Hazan dish was almost like an Idiot's Guide to Cooking: A patient teacher, she took nothing for granted amongst her readers. At the front of her books are short essays on such topics as salt, parmesan cheese and extra-virgin olive oil (the latter generally unheard of back then), each one amounting to a little discourse on its purpose or proper use. Here she is, for example, on breadcrumbs: "The bread crumbs used in Italian cooking are made from good stale bread with the addition of no flavoring of any kind whatever. They must be very dry, or they will become gummy, particularly in those dishes where they are tossed with pasta."
You read that once and it stays with you forever -- God forbid I should make gummy breadcrumbs!
In addition, she included 101 recipes for homemade broths, sauces and pastas. She told you what equipment to keep handy in the kitchen, what sorts of pots and pans to use (and equally important, what sorts NOT to use). She offered suggestions as to what to serve with what, and how far in advance you could make something. But what I fell in love with, and learned to trust implicitly, was her steady, confident voice persuading me of something's unexpected deliciousness. On the memorable onion sauce, she wrote: "The sweet pungency of onion is the whole story of this sauce. To draw out its character, the onion is first stewed very slowly for almost an hour, until it is meltingly soft and sweet. Then it is browned to bring its flavor to a sharper, livelier edge."
The pasta is finished with some chopped parsley and freshly-grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese (again, the latter was pretty much unheard of back then, when Parmesan cheese was generally sold dried and in cardboard canisters). So simple. And yet so perfect.
And as with every great cookbook, there was a personal story behind it: in Hazan's case, the story revolved around the Venetian house she shared with her beloved husband and "collaborator," Victor. Throughout the book, she makes references to Victor -- his likes and dislikes, his improvements to the dishes -- and her home on one of the canals, with its nearby fish markets, etc. When you cooked one of her recipes, you tasted and shared in her story.
On most days that year, after sitting at my computer for a few hours and notionally working on my book, I'd eagerly turn to Hazan to figure out what dish I'd like to make for my husband and me that evening. That he might be "expecting" me to cook dinner had ceased to enter into my head. My passion for Hazan became his as well. He was fascinated, as I was, by the magical properties of garlic when cooked different ways (chopped roughly or kept whole and cooked slowly for sweetness; chopped finely and sauteed briefly for piquancy). We discussed her notes about food as seriously as we did about whatever interesting point we'd come across in our mutual research. And we especially enjoyed the descriptions of the Hazan marriage; it was "collaborative." They obviously admired each other and didn't get hung up on who was cooking and who was doing the dishes. The photograph on a (now torn and stained) edition of her later compilation, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, shows a middle-aged Marcella and Victor arm-in-arm alongside a Venetian canal, smiling and touching each other in a way that suggests many years of happy intimacy. (In the end, they were married for 57 years.)
We both wanted to be that couple some day.
When our year in literary exile ended, we moved into a very small and quirky Brooklyn apartment that had been carved out of a 19th-century brownstone. Our flat had once served as the house's master bedroom and sitting area; it was thus equipped with a disproportionately spacious and magnificent bathroom, complete with stretch bath tub and ornate fixtures. The kitchen, on the other hand, had somehow been retro-fitted into a utility closet: a small stove, rammed up against a tiny fridge, with one overhead cabinet and virtually no counter space. Cooking became even a greater challenge than it had been.
For my husband's birthday that year, I decided to make him Marcella's homemade lasagna. This was one of her rare difficult recipes. The sauce, as she instructed, could be made a day in advance. But the pasta had to be boiled and assembled immediately before cooking. So I ended up having to boil the pasta sheets in batches and then hang them to dry on our long shower rod, like lingerie, as there was nowhere else to put them. At some point, my husband walked in on this scene, and of course laughed at the sight of it -- but his face was lit up with love and appreciation.
It remains the most ridiculous and time-consuming meal I've ever made. I think of it now, a quarter-century later, as also one of the best.
Thank you, Marcella, for everything you taught me.
Follow Danielle Crittenden on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dcrittenden1