The First Time I Met Marcella

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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  • Ruth I had exactly the same take on Marcella. In 1992, after reading an article in Australian Vogue Entertaining about she and Victor’s life in Venice, I dropped her a line asking if I could buy one of her signature aprons. It was amazing the letter even found her. A couple of months later I received the most gracious reply saying no, I don’t sell my aprons but I would be delighted to send you one of my own, “washed and pressed of course”. A couple of months later there it was. When i started my blog in 2012 ( I wrote to her again asking if she’d do an interview with me. Despite her 88 years and failing health she kindly agreed. And she was a delight. The piece is here if you’re interested.

  • Dear Ruth, I just came across this and wanted to thank you for your kind, warm tribute to my mother. By the way, I very much enjoyed reading Tender at the Bone and can’t imagine why you would not have had a line at your end of the table!

  • Jill Strauss says:

    Dear Ruth,
    I incorporated your lovely tribute into my blog post about a dinner I am holding on October 26th in honor of the incomparable Marcella.
    The dinner is in Kennebunkport, Maine. Wish you and Giuliano could attend.


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