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The Grumpy Genius of Marcella Hazan

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

In an era of finicky foodies and celebrity chefs, Marcella Hazan never troubled herself with the rough-and-tumble of branding. Not sexy like Nigella Lawson, not colorful like Emeril Lagasse, not adorable like Rachael Ray -- not even eccentric like Julia Child -- Hazan nailed Italian cooking in a uniquely grumpy way.

Her great 1973 work, "The Classic Italian Cook Book," is a humor-free zone of clear instructions on black-and-white pages. Do as Marcella says and you can't fail.

Calling Hazan, who died recently, a celebrity chef is like calling Einstein a celebrity physicist. Actually, the two had a few things in common. Hazan was also a trained scientist, having earned a doctorate in biology from the University of Ferrara. Hence, the precision of her recipes.

Einstein famously said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." That could have been Hazan's creed. Her followers never stop marveling at the fabulous results obtained by putting together just a few well-chosen ingredients. Almost every item on the Hazan shopping list can be found in an ordinary supermarket.

Not that she approved of ordinary supermarkets. "We have all heard about the decline of the fresh tomato," Hazan wrote in her book. "To judge by the plastic-wrapped examples in the supermarkets not even the worst reports are exaggerated."

Charm was not Marcella's strong suit. Yet she did for Italian cooking in America what Julia Child did for French cooking: She empowered the most inexperienced microwavers to meet high European standards.

But Child keeps you a lot busier. In her French pot roast recipe, Child calls for "small white onions, brown-braised in stock, page 483," requiring an herb bouquet of parsley sprigs, a bay leaf and thyme, all tied in cheesecloth. Marcella would never add another recipe from a different page.

Marcella is tough, cutting French food down to size. She holds that the vegetables from her childhood province of Emilia-Romagna surpass "even the quality of French produce."

In something of a twofer attack, she writes: "The best cooking in Italy is not, as in France, to be found in restaurants, but in the home. One of the reasons that Italian restaurants here are generally so poor is that they do not have Italian home cooking with which to compete."

Bear in mind she wrote this four decades ago.

Classic cooks clinging to Old World traditions may feel alien in the foodie universe of innovation, fusion and few rules about what goes on top of what. One couldn't imagine Hazan making a clam and bacon pizza as featured in a recent issue of Bon Appetit magazine. (Her classic book doesn't even have the word "pizza" in it.)

Nor would you envision Julia Child concocting -- a recipe in the same issue -- seaweed and tofu beignets with lime mayonnaise. Beignet is a French pastry made famous in New Orleans.

But both women would have greatly admired our foodies' attention to cooking and dining -- especially their intense desire to deindustrialize the American plate. We who would never dream of putting pickled carrots on a duck egg still benefit from the foodie obsession with locally produced cheeses, meats and vegetables.

Hazen moved to the United States in 1955 because her husband did. For all her complaints about the American way, Hazan spent her last years in Longboat Key, Fla., when she didn't have to.

Hazan surely must have had an engaging side. The important thing, though, is what she left behind: a culinary bible enabling average cooks to produce way-above-average Italian food.

On the personal side, I've gained some renown for my meat sauce Bolognese. Thanks, Marcella, for making us look good.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @fromaharrop. 

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