Marcella Hazan's West Coast Culinary Adventure

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Marcella and Victor Hazan, 1952 | Photo courtesy The Oregonian

Marcella Hazan was often compared to Julia Child, but it is Alice Waters she was more similar to in spirit and style.

Hazan, who died yesterday at 89, was a cook, instructor, and cookbook author who learned -- and mastered -- her trade after moving to the U.S. from her native Italy in her 30s. Though she didn't own a restaurant, she was widely considered the foremost authority on Italian cooking in America, if not the world.

Since she and Julia Child became famous in the same era, both for introducing authentic European dishes to the American masses, they are often slotted into the same category. But while the woman respected each other greatly (Child called Hazan "my mentor in all things Italian,") their styles were quite different. Child was all about technique, while Hazan privileged the ingredients.


My mother, Dayna Stern, was the cookbook buyer at kitchen supply store Sur La Table in the early '80s, when it was an independent, quirky, and very highly regarded foodie mecca in Seattle's Pike Place Market. She ordered so many of Hazan's books that the queen of Italian cookery agreed to come out to Seattle to be honored at a dinner with local media and foodist glitterati.

My mom remembers a shy, cheerful woman who was joined at the hip with her husband, Victor -- makes sense, given that he served as transcriber and translator for Hazan's books. Hazan's love of Jack Daniels was well-known, and since my grandfather worked for that company, my mother was able to give her some customized Jack Daniels swag, which was apparently met with much delight.

The Seattle dinner was meant to be a celebration of recipes from Hazan's most recent cookbook, and Mom was tasked with doing the actual cooking. The real work was in the sourcing of the ingredients.

"With Julia Child's cooking, it's all about the chiffonading and the whipping the egg yolks and everything just-so. But Marcella's recipes are all about quality ingredients, which was a novel idea in America at the time. She had to have influenced Alice Waters."

And so my mother prepared the multi-course feast using fresh ingredients and a lot of love. It didn't go off without a hitch, though. The poached pear dessert was set out on a back porch to cool. When the cooks went to retrieve it, they found a family of squirrels "prancing merrily" among the serving platters. Some the pears had perhaps been nibbled on. So in a move that would never fly now, Marcella Hazan's "pears poached in red wine" became "poached pears dipped in chocolate."

And the doyenne of Italian cooking, gracious as always and surprisingly in tune with the West Coast cookery spirit, praised the staff for their ingenuity.

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