Marcella Hazan’s legacy endures under husband Victor’s care

It’s 10:17 on an autumn night, and Facebook Messenger says Marcella Hazan has been active in the last hour.

It can’t be true, since the famed cookbook author and cooking teacher died nine years ago. Marcella, the forceful presence who brought “simple, true” Italian cooking to American households, was 89.

Her husband, Victor, was always by her side. And now, he’s the ghost in the machine. Victor’s eloquent, wistful Facebook posts have shared stories and appreciations, curious questions and poetic mini-essays, all signed with his own name since Marcella’s death in 2013. He finished her final book, “Ingredienti,” in 2016, working from her sparse notes. He wrote the foreword for the new 30th anniversary edition of her landmark title, “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.”

At 94, his vision impaired, he writes far less than before, but his tributes have illuminated another truth: As long as Victor remains, the Marcella the world knew is not entirely gone.

“Well, we had been close for a very long time, for practically 60 years,” Victor said before a recent book signing in Seattle. “We were not just close because we were married, our whole working life was hand in hand, and that makes a difference, when everything you do and plan and project is the same, on both sides.”

Recipe: Make Marcella Hazan’s Risotto with Parmesan Cheese

It’s easy to imagine an alternate universe where the one-name phenomenon Marcella never existed, where American cooks found some other path to homemade Bolognese or three-ingredient tomato sauce or milk-braised pork. The first fork in that road would be the day in 1952 that Victor Hazan visited Italy’s Adriatic coast.

“One of my cousins happened to be staying there, and he said, ‘Would you like to meet a nice girl?’ And I’ve never said no to that kind of an offer. And he introduced me to Marcella …”

“From then on, we were more or less inseparable.”

Their marriage was unremarkable in the broad outlines — lasting, loving, generally happy. The culinary history came from the details.

Marcella was a biologist with two doctoral degrees. She “had never cooked a meal in her life,” Victor said. Her character was forged in hardships, from a crippling arm injury to the terrors and deprivations of World War II to a “raging misogynist” of a college professor who delayed her career.

To Victor’s thinking, her toughness sprang from even her coastal home.

Cesenatico “was not a beach resort, it was a pure fishing town,” with a mind-set of “this strength of overcoming, of fighting and winning … and knowing what the target was.”

Victor, by contrast, had left Italy for New York with his Jewish family in 1939, pining through wartime years for the day he could return. He missed his beloved grandmother, his friends, neighborhoods, the language — and the meals. “I had loved food ever since I was, you know, old enough to recognize food,” he said.

He told Marcella with “discomfiting” directness, she recalled in her 2008 memoir, that “he wanted to write, and he wanted to live in Italy.”

The second part wasn’t always possible — and there came the second fork in the road. Finances forced a return to New York after their marriage, where she felt the same culture shock and isolation Victor experienced.

“There was nothing except me,” Victor said. “And the necessity of producing food.”

She taught herself to cook brilliantly, drawing on memories and what Victor calls a “great empathy” for ingredients — and the trained focus of a scientist with a particular love for botany.

“She was very precise, she had a great gift of observation. It was wonderful to walk in the woods with Marcella because she would take any leaf, any twig, any blade of grass and tell you stories about it,” Victor said. “She had these spiral notebooks and she started writing notes about the food that she was cooking because she felt it would help her to have a record of what she had been doing.”

She ultimately taught cooking classes, drawing the attention of New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne and eventually an invitation to write a cookbook. She protested that she wrote in Italian, not English. She was married, though, to someone who did.

Make the recipe: Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce III

Marcella switched to legal-size notebooks, writing recipes and sometimes “preambles” very fast in a tight script, sometimes in red ink. “She never corrected, she never went back. Her writing, zoom, zoom, zoom, line after line after line, without rethinking,” Victor said.

“I worked all day [in advertising, originally in his parents’ furrier business], and in the evening I came home. I had a little portable typewriter,” he said. “Marcella made dinner. It was always wonderful. And I got up from the table after dinner and I went to the bedroom” to type there until 1 or 2 in the morning.

Marcella told a newspaper in 1974 the book was Victor’s too — not just through translations, but because she was cooking for his palate.

The rest is history — some 40 years more of it, filled with steady work and formal recognition of Marcella’s talent and impact. More books followed the first. Marcella taught cooking classes and led cooking schools in Italy. Victor eventually left his day job to assist and wrote his own book on Italian wine. They enjoyed years in Venice (“of course the best place in the world to live,” Victor said) before her poor health led them to Longboat Key, Fla., in part to be close to their son Giuliano’s family.

“She is part of history,” Victor said, with more than rhetoric: The National Museum of American History is in talks with him and Giuliano about potentially acquiring her notebooks and other artifacts. A filmmaker, Peter Miller, is completing a documentary on her life.

At that night at Seattle’s Book Larder bookstore, with limited capacity (“I’m very old. I get tired,” Victor said before sitting for an hour-long interview followed by an hour-long Q&A and signing), audience members seemed to know they were linked to an era’s end. They asked how Victor and Marcella met, what her process was for creating recipes, how it feels to celebrate the book’s anniversary, what was his favorite dish.

For the last, he thinks of the meal that was more complicated than most of her recipes, the multilayered lasagna with hand-rolled sheets of delicate spinach pasta she’d make every Oct. 20, his birthday. The recipe is in the book, but no one, he says, makes it like she did. “No one.”

What does he miss about Marcella? Her fierce intelligence. The slab pottery classes they took together. Her skill at ikebana. Their discussions over lunch, and the lunches themselves, cooked fresh from the market every day she wasn’t traveling. “We had an awful lot of fun,” he said.

If an element of Marcella remains with him here, it’s possible that by the same calculation a piece of Victor is now gone. That’s not how he thinks of their legacy, though.

“Her books will be well-thumbed for as long as there are cooks who want to cook well for their family, their friends and for themselves,” Victor said.

“Marcella is forever.”

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