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Monday, October 13, 2008

On Not Interviewing America's Most Famous Italian Cookbook Author

Posted by Matt Davis on Mon, Oct 13, 2008 at 11:47 AM

I leapt at the chance to interview Marcella Hazan when I heard she was coming to town a few weeks ago. My brother bought Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking for me and Sue as a wedding gift in 2006, and since then we've cooked a good 60% of the recipes, going back to our favorites over and over. Sure, I wanted to meet the woman who slammed the Olive Garden in USA Today for "not being Italian enough." But if anything, I just wanted Hazan to sign my favorite recipe of all time: Lamb chops pan-roasted in white wine finished Marches style with egg and lemon. It's a good job, because in the end, that's all I got:

hazansignature.jpg

"Hi Matt, this is Kevin," said Hazan's handler, on the phone from Powell's, 45 minutes before our scheduled interview at the Heathman yesterday. "I'm afraid Victor [Hazan's husband] has asked that she cancel her interview with you. There's a line stretching around the room and she's going to be exhausted by the time she's signed all the books."

It's not Kevin's job to deal with pissed off journalists, so I thanked him and hung up. Having worked my way through Hazan's new autobiography, Amacord: Marcella Remembers, issued this month by Gotham Books, I'd prepared a dozen questions about Hazan's glittering career. But after a brief post-hang-up outburst, I resigned myself to my place at the bottom of the publicity pile. Yet another reason to tell people you work for the New York Times, I thought. So I decided, instead, to show up at Powell's and join the line:

lineforhazan.jpg

At 84, it's something of a miracle to see Hazan going on book tour. Since the publication of The Classic Italian Cookbook in 1973, she has sold over half a million books and should by rights be comfortably retired at her home in Florida. Her new book does detail a few business deals gone wrong, like the failed attempt to launch a pasta restaurant at Bloomingdales, and the disastrous opening of a restaurant in Atlanta, circa 1990. But at conservative royalties of $3 a book, not to mention TV work, simple arithmetic makes Hazan a wealthy old lady. I just hope she's still writing out of passion, and not because she needs the money.

Amarcord offers inspiring insights into the role of faith, tenacity and good luck in the life of America's most celebrated Italian cookbook author. It will appeal to those with an interest in Hazan's food writing, but also, I think, to those with writing ambitions in any field, and to those with an interest in publishing, too.

Hazan had never cooked before her marriage to Victor, the dilettante son of Manhattan furriers. Marcella, a doctor in natural sciences, met Victor in Italy after the war where he was living on a parental allowance, indulging ideas of being a writer. They married, and moved back to New York where his parents refused to acknowledge her (she was Catholic, he, Jewish). Hazan got a job as a research assistant in a lab, infecting rats with gum disease. She hated the food here, and the pair moved back to Italy a while later, where Victor got a job in advertising. They're still together today:

hazan.jpg

Victor eventually lost his job, and the couple moved back to New York, where Hazan began teaching cooking in the couple's apartment in Manhattan in October 1969, when her fellow students in a Chinese cooking class were looking for a new cuisine to learn. Hazan cooked a meal at their apartment for New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne in 1970, and would never again need to earn money from either rats or gingivitis.

Seeing the Hazans together yesterday, working the crowd, I was reminded of Victor's marketing background, and remembered, he's the guy who's written almost all her books. His role in the couple's success can't be underestimated, because she still prefers to speak Italian, for example. But while others have evoked the specter of exploitation in discussing their relationship, one wonders who, in that case, would be exploiting who? She would be at a loss without his pushiness, and sure...he'd be at loss without someone to push. But that's a marriage. And a fascinating one, at that. Hazan still smokes and likes a Jack Daniels too, and the couple haven't always gotten on with their publishers and editors. But are those reasons to judge them? I don't think so.

I was joined at the back of the line yesterday by 84-year-old Jack Caldwell, holding a place for his wife, Betty, who couldn't stand for long. Betty had taken two of Hazan's cookery courses, once at her school in Bologna, and then, some years later, at her "master class" in Venice.

"I went with her both times," said Caldwell, with a spry grin. "I got to go along to some of the spouse things."

Caldwell said his wife's cooking broadened after studying with Hazan, and that she's learned lots of new tricks, like peeling green peppers before cooking to make them less bitter. His favorite Hazan recipe is a Veal Scallopine with Lemon (from the Essentials, p.362). "It's very simple," he said. "But delicious. That's the problem with so many American cooks, they try to do things with too many ingredients."

"It's nice if you can get the veal in the first place," said his wife, joining us in line. "We used to know a lady who'd kill a calf and we'd take half. But you can't get veal at New Seasons."

Caldwell, himself, started learning Italian in 1945, when he served with the Air Force in southern Italy for the last three months of the war. "We weren't allowed to go into the local restaurants," he said. "We had too much money, and we could price the poor Italians out of the market."

The Caldwells have been back to Italy every year or so since 1972. Talking to them about Italian cooking and Hazan, I realized I was no more entitled to a fraction of her time than they were, and when I eventually got to the front of the line, I introduced myself, proffering the cookbook for Marcella's signature.

"I'm the journalist who was supposed to interview you at five," I said.

Victor, crabbier than his serene jacket photo might suggest, cut in.

"You can't."

He gestured to the crowd of people, still hanging around. "I'm sorry. There's just been so many people," he said.

"I know that," I said, addressing Marcella. "I was just hoping you could sign my favorite recipe. It's an honor to meet you."

And it was. Although she looked absolutely dog tired.

Last night we had Hazan's squid with potatoes. It's slow-cooked so the squid stays tender, and there's just a touch of garlic in there with the tomato sauce:

squidwithpotatoes.jpg

I contemplated the Hazans' legacy as I chewed: To have marketed such simplicity and authenticity to the country that once wanted ketchup with everything is no mean feat. Except now, in an era of organics and localism, it's easy to take their contribution for granted. And if I were either of them, I think I'd be entitled to be crabby about that, too.

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