September 30, 2013
All the obituaries seem to mention how prickly and uncompromising Marcella Hazan could be – and I later learned how true that was – but the first time I met her she was incredibly kind.
It was 1998, and I’d just published my first memoir, Tender at the Bone. We’d both been invited to participate in a large cookbook signing event, and we’d been set up at the same table. Beneath the table was one carton of my book, and dozens of hers. My box remained full while hers quickly ran out. But still her fans arrived, carrying armloads of sauce-stained books, eager to see her, touch her, just bask in her presence.
Who could blame them? This was a woman who was as important to American cooks as Julia Child, offering us an alternative to the red sauce Italian food we’d come to consider authentic. Marcella’s food was superbly spare and completely delicious; it you followed her recipes you ended up with food that was truly Italian. And unlike Julia’s often complicated recipes, Marcella’s are simple to make and unfailingly reliable. To this day if I could have only one cookbook for the rest of my life, it would be one of hers.
But back then, sitting miserably at that table, engulfed by Marcella fans I could only think how humiliating the situation was. Engrossed in signing and talking, Marcella didn’t notice that I had no line; hers stretched out the door. Then she looked up, and a frown crossed her face. “Go buy her book,” she ordered the woman standing in front of her. Marcella could be imperious.
Marcella’s fans were loath to disobey her, and by the end of the evening I’d sold all my books. When the last one was gone Marcella rose and put on her coat. “You’ll see,” she said kindly, patting my arm in a farewell gesture, “it will get better.”
I think about that every time I make her famous tomato sauce. It’s the epitome of Marcella: three ingredients, 45 minutes, and a recipe for total happiness. Nothing smells better as it cooks, and no food is more comforting.
Thank you Marcella, for everything.
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