And now to Marcella, whom I never met and never cooked from but about whom I know a story I can never write even though she is the good guy in it. I’m not sure Signora Hazan should be blamed for the Olive Garden, but she definitely made Americans savvier about the way Italian food is provisioned, cooked and eaten in Italy and should be done right here. And she did it without the advantages Julia Child had, television and (chirpy) personality. (I got a sense of the prickliness when I did a featurette by phone on her condo kitchen in Florida — cabinets behind kickboards turned out to have a double meaning.) For all her transformational power, though, it’s interesting to see the food she was so repulsed by is now almost celebrated at hip red-sauce places like Parm. It’s Italian-American and there’s no stigma to it. Meanwhile, I wonder how many other cookbook buyers are like me today, looking more for specialties from one region rather than an overview of a whole historically disjointed country. The Italy shelves in our dining room are dedicated to Parma and Rome, Veneto and Sardinia etc. and to books by the types of chefs Marcella would scorn, with her insistence that Italian is “not the created, ‘creative’” cooking in restaurants. Every healthy thing evolves. I always contended Italian is not a cuisine. It’s ingredients on a plate. And that is what she proved.
A few last thoughts on the way the news spreads now: The Hazans’ daughter-in-law announced the death on Facebook (although she was omitted among the survivors in the Times obit) and from there it spread through the Twittersphere, users exhibiting an almost unseemly urge to be first to RIP. The Guardian based most of its obit, included in the Life & Style section, on an old interview on Epicurious. Safer than swiping from “news” sites, I guess. We also live in an age of obits teamed with recipes, and apparently I’ve been doing tomato sauce wrong. (Cynic that I am, I was also amused to see how very few recipes were cited time after time as iconic. Shades o’ Julia & her stew du beef)
Finally, I can say from experience it’s much easier to write an obit of a legend when you have months to research it. There was some grumbling that Penelope Casas did not get her NYTimely due; as an email right after the Marcella news predicted: “This is one they won’t skip.” From those lips to the Page One editor’s ear. Cynic that I am, I wonder how many editors with resources are in Grim Reaper mode today, speculating on the next to go to that big kitchen in the sky . . .