She was an immigrant, uncertain of her English, marooned all day in a New York apartment while her husband was at work. So, by paging through an old Italian cookbook and by tapping an "intuitive understanding" of Italian food, she taught herself to cook. That is how Marcella Hazan, 84, describes the beginnings of her highly successful career as the cookbook author who became known as the queen of Italian cooking in America.
When I read this account in Amarcord, Hazan's recently published memoir, I was taken aback. As a devotee of her cookbooks, I have followed her exacting, sometimes scolding instructions. I could envision her ordering herself to master Italian cooking. But I had a hard time picturing Marcella Hazan relying on the muses to guide her.
Yet when I spoke with her and her husband, Victor, in a recent telephone conversation, they described her cooking career more in terms of inspiration than perspiration.
"Knowing how to cook was something inside myself," said Marcella, who trained as a scientist in Italian universities. "It came out as if by osmosis."
"Logic will take you only so far," said Victor. "To go beyond the ingredients in a recipe, you need the mystery of creativity. Marcella is particularly gifted in connecting to that creativity."
When I read a memoir of a noted person in the food world, I hunger for insights, big and small, into their lives. I found both in Amarcord.
On the professional front, I learned how she made the journey from being that uncertain immigrant in a small apartment to a celebrated cookbook author. She began teaching Italian cooking classes in New York.
One day she got a telephone call from a writer at The New York Times. She invited the man, whom she thought was named "Greg," to lunch at her home. It was Craig Claiborne, and his subsequent glowing article about her cooking class in the Times led to a contract for her first book, The Classic Italian Cook Book.
There were bumps along the way.
When Harper's Magazine Press, the publisher of her first cookbook, wasn't performing up to the Hazans' standards, a shift was made, with the help of Julia Child, to Knopf. There, her editor was Judith Jones. It was a relationship that both women acknowledge was productive yet volatile. In her well-received memoir The Tenth Muse, Jones has written that the two clashed over ingredients in recipes. For instance, Jones thought that Hazan's insistence on using both butter and olive oil in dishes was "too much of a good thing."
"It was never an easy give and take relationship," Jones wrote, "which is so important in a cookbook."
Eventually, the Hazans left Jones and Knopf for HarperCollins.
That breakup "bothers me still," Hazan told me. One factor in the split was the disagreement over nominating one of her cookbooks, The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, for a James Beard Award.
According to the version told in Amarcord, Jones was unwilling to nominate the book because she saw it as a revision of earlier works and did not feel it qualified as a new book, the category the competition was designed to honor. Hazan ended up nominating the book herself and it won an award for best Italian cookbook of the year. For Hazan, the failure to nominate Essentials was a sign that the publisher did "not believe in the work that you do."
As for insights into their personal lives, I was struck by the large role that Victor has played in Marcella's career. It was his copy of the old Italian cookbook Il Talismano della Felicita by Ada Boni that, along with muses, inspired Marcella to start cooking in New York. Victor encouraged her to begin the cooking classes, and consulted with her on book covers and titles. He wrote advertising copy, helped Marcella pen her cookbooks and, at the suggestion of Judith Jones, wrote Italian Wine, published in 1982 by Knopf.
He also has been a valued taster, sampling almost every dish she cooks, except chicken, which he does not care for. When I heard that I felt sorry for Victor, because he missed out on her fricasseed chicken asti style with pancetta, peppers and herbs, a dish from her Marcella Says cookbook that has become a favorite at our house.
I laughed when I read that Marcella can't stand cranberry sauce, a "cloying sweet taste" she encountered in her first Thanksgiving meal at an acquaintance's home in Charlottesville, Va.
She is not fond of ketchup, but thinks American baked ham is "one of the most wonderful dishes of any cuisine ... when done right it has a different kind of sweetness."
Now living in Longboat Key, Fla., near their son Giuliano, the Hazans still cook meals every day from scratch, a habit that amazes their neighbors.
Marcella told me she misses the sole, the small fish caught in the village of Cesenatico on Italy's Adriatic. "It has a light taste of almonds." The waters of Florida, she said, "are full of fish, but the boats stay out too long, 15 days. When their fish comes back, it is very old."
Reading this memoir made me think about how the modern trends are sometimes rooted in the past.
For instance, in Amarcord, Marcella describes the meals she ate as a young girl in Italy. "Most of the food on our table, vegetables, and fruit, wine and olive oil, chickens and rabbits - came from our farm or from that of a neighbor or relative."
It struck me that Marcella Hazan and the folks in her pre-World War II village were locavores, a lifestyle that urban dwelling Americans are trying to replicate.
But when I suggested to Marcella that modern Americans were eating liked the Italian villagers of years ago, she was not buying it.
"The only tomato we have in Florida that tastes like it is from Italy is one they call the Ugly tomato," she told me. "And they have a real problem with the vegetables here in the supermarket. They just wet them, wet them, wet them and then they get rotten."
That sounded like the Marcella I knew - straightforward, no mystery.