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 in Longboat Key, Fla., 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 in a condo near Sarasota 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 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 United States. 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.