LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
In the last few decades, Americans have moved way past red sauce to a new appreciation of Italian food. As part of our occasional series The Long View, we spoke with the woman who showed us the way to Italian regional cooking in all its rich variety, Marcella Hazan. As Madhur Jaffrey taught us Indian cooking, Hazan's classical Italian cookbook inspired American cooks. Of course it helped that Italian cooking is easier, but it was not at all easy for Marcella Hazan to write her books.
Ms. MARCELLA HAZAN (Chef, Author of "Amarcord: Marcella Remembers"): I don't write in English. I refuse. It's too difficult for me. It's already difficult to speak in English some.
WERTHEIMER: As you will hear, Marcella wrote her books with the help of her American husband, Victor, who translated - sometimes loosely - her Italian into idiomatic English. Her most recent book is a memoir called Amarcord, which means in her regional dialect I remember.
We talked to Marcella and Victor Hazan at their home in Florida. One of the memories she writes about is the first Christmas after the Second World War. Her family had retreated to their farm in Northern Italy. They returned home to the Adriatic coast just before Christmas.
Ms. HAZAN: It was wonderful. To be a family together in peace and having this food and having Christmas, because the other Christmas, they were not Christmas at all.
WERTHEIMER: The war years had been times of privation and shortage, a farmhouse filled with relatives and refugees and not enough food or even blankets to go around. Being back at home seemed wonderful to Marcella. She remembered her tiny grandmother standing on a crate rolling pasta into silky sheets nearly as big as a bedspread to make a holiday dish pasta in the shape of three-cornered hats.
Ms. HAZAN: Cappelletti stuffed with a little piece of the capon and a little veal that we bought is part of the Christmas. It's not that we don't do it all the time, but for Christmas you have to do it.
WERTHEIMER: Although she remembers every detail of this Christmas meal, Marcella didn't think much about food at this point in her life. She did not know how to cook - she wasn't interested in learning. She went to college studying science, hoping to be a teacher. Then she met Victor Hazan, an American who had lived in Italy as a child. Now, he loved Italian food.
Ms. HAZAN: He was always talking about food, so, which for me, a young woman, you think that someone that court you talk about other thing but not food, especially if you are not interested in food.
WERTHEIMER: The young couple married and lived for a time in Italy but then Victor Hazan had to go home to New York to help with the family business. They settled in the suburbs. It was 1955 and Marcella experienced her first American supermarket.
Ms. HAZAN: It was very strange. Naturally, Victor, the first thing that he did when we arrived home in Forest Hills - that was the first apartment - he took me into the supermarket to buy food. I never saw a supermarket in Italy. The chicken, they would arrive from the farmer and they were alive. In the supermarket, they were very dead. They were wrapped. It was like a coffin. Everything was not natural.
WERTHEIMER: Marcella Hazan tried to recreate the foods of Italy using canned food and plastic-wrapped meat, missing the fresh produce of her homeland. She found she liked Chinese food. It had pasta, she said, and layers of flavor. Victor, trying to convince his wife to make friends, suggested she take a class in Chinese cooking. She did, but after a month the teacher had to return to China. Her classmates turned to Marcella: would she teach them to cook Italian food?
Ms. HAZAN: And I said to Victor, the American women, they're crazy. Look what they ask me. And they said, well, you complain that you have free time; why don't you do it. Darling, I never did in my life anything that I was not asked to do it. It was not my idea, never.
WERTHEIMER: But it was a great idea, and everything started from there. People heard about her cooking classes, and one of the people who heard was a book publisher. She invited him for dinner and he invited her to write a book.
Ms. HAZAN: He asked me, did you ever thought about writing a cookbook? And I said no. He said would you like to write one? I said no. Said why? It's because I don't write in English. And Victor said, well, if you want, I can translate. I said, well, if you want to translate, all right, let's do it. I didn't have any idea, darling, how to write a cookbook.
WERTHEIMER: Your partnership with your husband...
Ms. HAZAN: Yes.
WERTHEIMER: ...has made a great deal of this possible that...
Ms. HAZAN: Oh yes. I will not do anything if it was not for him.
WERTHEIMER: Victor Hazan took his wife's instinctive cooking - based in memory, not recipes - and wrote it down. He picked up on details she disregarded.
Ms. HAZAN: So, I was in the kitchen to test the recipe, and Victor was translating and working on the other recipe. And they was coming to me and said, I don't know, all that string beans that I ate in this house - they don't have both ends. I said, well, of course, I took it out. But you didn't write it. OK. Give me back, that, that, that. And this was going on. But, you know, he was not cooking. So, he was coming to ask me things that I didn't think about writing, and that was why they say that my recipe work.
WERTHEIMER: So, you had the cook...
Ms. HAZAN: Yeah.
WERTHEIMER: ...who knew what she was doing and the editor who...
Ms. HAZAN: Yeah.
WERTHEIMER: ...made it very, very clear.
Ms. HAZAN: Yeah.
WERTHEIMER: The Hazans have been together for more than 50 years, working partners for much of that time. They've written books, opened cooking schools here and in Italy. They've changed the way we eat Italian food and saved some romances. Victor Hazan begins that story.
Mr. VICTOR HAZAN: There were the magazines, I remember, with one that ran the recipe. Marcella has a recipe for chicken in which she uses two lemons, salt and pepper and nothing else. It got a lot of replies, and among these were 42 women who said I made this dish for my boyfriend and after that he proposed. And so they re-ran the recipe renaming it Engagement Chicken.
Ms. HAZAN: You know, there have been things that I never thought in my life that were happening. They write me that they save the marriage, so had an impact, I think.
WERTHEIMER: You changed some lives.
Ms. HAZAN: Yes. And those of them, there are so many of them that Italian cooking is not so true that it is so complicated; it's very, very easy.
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WERTHEIMER: If you want to see if Engagement Chicken works for you, it's on our website, NPR.org.
Consider this: When Marcella Hazan came to America, parmesan cheese came in cans; we'd never met balsamic vinegar. Marcella Hazan showed us that Italian cooking is simple, healthy, and splendid.
Tomorrow, Jacques Pepin takes The Long View of French cooking.
This is NPR News.