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At 88, cookbook legend finds new audience online

At a time when overcooked spaghetti and Chef Boyardee defined Italian food for most Americans, Marcella Hazan dared them to try a bite of something new.
/ Source: The Associated Press

At a time when overcooked spaghetti and Chef Boyardee defined Italian food for most Americans, Marcella Hazan dared them to try a bite of something new.

That was roughly 40 years ago. Since then, her many cookbooks, classes and television shows have made classic Italian cooking — this time the real deal — as ubiquitous in the U.S. as burgers and pizza. And yet Hazan — considered to have done for Italian cooking what Julia Child did for French — isn't done yet.

Though 88, officially retired and wrestling with back and other health issues, Hazan continues to teach. This time it isn't in a refurbished 16th century palazzo in Venice. It's on Facebook.

"Friends: To have met here with you to chat and sometimes amicably to argue about cooking, a subject that arouses your feelings as it does mine, to have had this opportunity for conversation, has been one of the keenest pleasures of my career's closing years," she wrote in a post on May 30. "I hope to enjoy it yet a little longer if I can overcome difficult moments such as those that have plagued me this spring."

Hazan has many ardent fans. And in the twilight of her career, they have found in her a willing and still feisty teacher happy to offer advice, challenge assumptions and continue to teach.

"My first wild salmon of the season," she wrote on June. 1. "I am very careful not to overcook sockeye, which may look underdone because of its glossy red color, but it is not."

Hazan and her husband, Victor, live near Sarasota in a condo with sweeping views of the Gulf of Mexico. She's slower than she used to be, mostly because of the painful back, but that doesn't stop her from gliding around her kitchen.

With her gray hair and Italian-accented English, Hazan looks and sounds like the quintessential grandma (which she is; she has two grandchildren who live nearby).

But there's still a gleam in her eye and an edge to her smile, especially when talking about cooking.

And she's still doing exactly what she set out to do six decades ago — cook for her husband every day. Recently, she sat down with The Associated Press to talk about her long career and thoughts on modern-day cooking.

Hazan firmly believes that all families can and should spend time together cooking and eating.

"The story that 'I don't have time to cook,' I never believe it," she said, shaking her head.

Born Marcella Pollini in 1924 in the Emilia-Romana region of Italy, Hazan didn't intend to be a cooking teacher or cookbook author. She graduated from the University of Ferrara with a doctorate in natural sciences and biology and taught those subjects as a young woman.

But then she met Victor Hazan, who was born in Italy but raised in New York. The couple married in 1955 and moved to the U.S. It was then that she realized she needed to feed her husband, who longed for the flavors of Italy. Hazan had never cooked, though she had spent her life in her mother's and grandmother's kitchens.

To get her through those first few years she painstakingly copied her mother's recipes, collecting them in a clipped-together folio she held on to for decades.

Cooking intrigued the young biologist; flavor combinations and cooking times seemed to be like a scientific experiment. In the early 1960s, she went to take a Chinese cooking class, but the instructor cancelled. The other students collectively decided that Hazan should instead teach them how to cook Italian food.

With the encouragement of her husband, Hazan began offering cooking classes from their New York City apartment. Those lessons blossomed into a lifelong business of teaching. She and Victor opened a cooking school in Bologna, then in Venice. But it was her 1973 cookbook, "The Classic Italian Cookbook," that led some to draw comparisons between Hazan and another larger-than-life cookbook author: Julia Child.

The two women were longtime friends.

"Julia was very quick, very fast," recalled Hazan. "I remember one time she just browned a few sausages and that was our meal."

The Hazans' one son, Giuliano, shared the family's love of food and also became a cookbook author. He and his wife, Lael — who live in nearby Sarasota — run a cooking school in Verona and a popular food blog ( Giuliano also makes frequent visits to NBC's "Today" show, where he teaches his mother's recipes.

Marcella and Victor Hazan retired to their condo on Longboat Key in the late 1990s. There, the couple renovated the kitchen, which overlooked the Gulf's languid blue waters.

Her cooking space is small by American standards, but it's clear that a professional works within. Spatulas, spoons and other tools line the walls on a rack, while two well-worn blue food processors sit at the ready. There's an entire drawer devoted to pasta — packs of spaghetti and bags of penne — and a cabinet just for olive oils.

"This one is Giuliano's," she said, pointing to a nearly empty bottle of oil; her son bottles his own from Italian olives grown in Apulia, a region in southern Italy.

She still cooks lunch and dinner daily, and when asked if her husband of 57 years sometimes cooks for her, Hazan chuckles. Because she's suffered some health problems lately, she said, he does get in her kitchen.

"I try to tell him what to do," she said, grinning. "And it's not easy."

There is little in her freezer — some blood orange gelato and a bottle of vodka, along with some ice — and the fridge is stuffed with an assortment of goods, including a large papaya. Despite living mostly in the United States for decades, Hazan and her husband still adhere to Italian traditions: they sit at the dining room table to eat a large lunch each day and follow meals with fruit, not cakes, cookies or other confections.

And Hazan would like to have a word with all of you would-be Italian chefs in America: don't undercook the vegetables and don't overcook the garlic.

And please, please, Hazan begs: keep Italian food simple.

"It's the same importance of what you keep out as what you keep in," said Hazan.


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