Marcella Hazan’s legacy lives on under husband Victor’s care
Her husband, Victor, was always by her side. And now he’s the ghost in the machine. Victor’s eloquent and nostalgic Facebook posts shared stories and appreciations, curious questions and poetic mini-essays, all signed with his own name since Marcella’s death in 2013. He has completed his latest book, “Ingredienti” , in 2016, working from his sparse notes. . He wrote the foreword to the new 30th anniversary edition of his landmark title, “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.”
At 94, his eyesight impaired, he writes much less than before, but his tributes have illuminated another truth: as long as Victor remains, the Marcella the world knew is not entirely gone.
“Well, we were close for a very long time, almost 60 years,” Victor said ahead of a recent book signing in Seattle. “We weren’t just close because we were married, our whole professional life was hand in hand, and that makes a difference, when everything you do, plan and project is the same, on both sides.”
Recipe: Make Marcella Hazan’s Parmesan Risotto
It’s easy to imagine an alternate universe where the one-name phenomenon Marcella never existed, where American cooks found another path to homemade bolognese or three-ingredient tomato sauce or braised pork in milk. The first fork in this road would be the day in 1952 when Victor Hazan visited the Italian Adriatic coast.
“A cousin of mine happened to be staying there and he said, ‘Would you like to meet a nice girl?’ And I never said no to that kind of offer. And he introduced me to Marcella…”
“From then on, we were more or less inseparable.”
Their marriage was mundane in outline – enduring, loving, generally happy. Culinary history came from the details.
Marcella was a biologist with two doctorates. She “never cooked a meal in her life,” Victor said. His character was forged through hardship, from a crippling arm injury to the terrors and deprivations of World War II to a “rabid misogynist” of a college professor who set his career back.
For Victor, his tenacity even came from his coastal home.
Cesenatico “was not a seaside resort, it was a pure fishing town”, with a mindset of “that strength to overcome, to fight and to win… and to know what the goal was “.
Victor, on the other hand, had left Italy for New York with his Jewish family in 1939, pining through the war years for the day he could return. He missed his beloved grandmother, his friends, his quarters, the language and the meals. “I loved food ever since I was, you know, old enough to recognize food,” he said.
He told Marcella with “disconcerting” frankness, she recalled in her 2008 memoir, that “he wanted to write and he wanted to live in Italy”.
The second part was not always possible – and there was the second fork in the road. Finances forced her to return to New York after their marriage, where she experienced the same culture shock and isolation that Victor experienced.
“There was nothing but me,” Victor said. “And the need to produce food.”
She taught herself to cook brilliantly, drawing on her memories and what Victor calls a “great empathy” for ingredients – and the focus of a scientist with a special love for botany.
“She was very precise, she had a great gift of observation. It was wonderful walking in the woods with Marcella because she would pick up any leaf, any twig, any blade of grass and tell you stories about it,” Victor said. . “She had these spiral notebooks and she started writing notes about the food she was cooking because she thought it would help her keep track of what she had made.”
She eventually taught cooking classes, attracting the attention of New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne and eventually an invitation to write a cookbook. She protested that she was writing in Italian and not in English. She was married, however, to someone who did.
Make the recipe: Tomato sauce III from Marcella Hazan
Marcella switched to legal-sized notebooks, writing recipes and sometimes “preambles” very quickly in tight script, sometimes in red ink. “She never corrected, she never came back. Her writing, zoom, zoom, zoom, line after line after line, without rethinking,” Victor said.
“I worked all day [in advertising, originally in his parents’ furrier business], and in the evening I returned. I had a small portable typewriter,” he said. “Marcella cooked dinner. It was always wonderful. And I got up from the table after dinner and went to the bedroom to type there until 1 or 2 in the morning.
Marcella told a newspaper in 1974 that the book was Victor’s too – not just through translations, but because she cooked for her palate.
The rest is history – some 40 more years, filled with constant work and formal recognition of Marcella’s talent and impact. Other books followed the first. Marcella has taught cooking classes and run cooking schools in Italy. Victor eventually quit his day job to help and wrote his own book on Italian wine. They spent years in Venice (“of course the best place in the world to live,” Victor said) before poor health led them to Longboat Key, Florida, in part to be close to their son’s family. Juliano.
“She’s history,” Victor said, with more than rhetoric: The National Museum of American History is in talks with him and Giuliano about potentially acquiring his notebooks and other artifacts. A filmmaker, Peter Miller, is finishing a documentary about his life.
That evening at Seattle’s Book Larder bookstore, with limited capacity (“I’m very old. I’m getting tired,” Victor said before sitting down for an hour-long interview followed by a hour-long Q&A and a signature), audience members seemed to know they were tied to the end of an era. They asked how Victor and Marcella met, what his recipe-making process was like, what it was like to celebrate the book’s anniversary, what his favorite dish was.
For the last time, he thinks of the meal that was more complicated than most of her recipes, the multi-layered lasagna with delicate hand-rolled spinach pasta sheets that she made every October 20, her birthday. The recipe is in the book, but no one, he says, makes it like her. “Nobody.”
What is he missing in Marcella? His fierce intelligence. The slab pottery classes they took together. His talent at ikebana. Their discussions over lunch, and the lunches themselves, cooked from the market every day she wasn’t travelling. “We had a lot of fun,” he said.
If a piece of Marcella stays with him here, it’s possible that, by the same calculation, a piece of Victor is now gone. That’s not how he thinks of their legacy, though.
“His books will be well followed as long as there are cooks who are willing to cook well for their family, their friends and for themselves,” Victor said.
“Marcella is forever.”