The other great lady of cooking died over the weekend at the age of 89. Between them, Marcella and Julia Child improved the daily lives of Americans in the latter half of the twentieth century as much as air conditioning. Or craft beer in the twenty-first. Which might not be with us at all except for these ladies’ attention to ingredients and passion for authenticity and exactitude.
Marcella was said to be a bit prickly in her insistence on her way of doing things. (One wonders what her Niehoff lecture would have been like.) Many of her instructions have a slightly hectoring tone. Her first book, The Classic Italian Cook Book (1973), has a recipe for “Cold Sauteed Trout in Orange Marinade” (this was not the Italian cooking encountered in red-checkered tablecloth restaurants of the seventies). After the trout is sauteed, it is marinated for a day or two in a mix of orange juice, lemon juice and vermouth. The recipe gives precise directions to prepare the trout for its herbal citrus bath: “With a well-sharpened knife, make two or three skin-deep diagonal cuts on both sides of the fish. Be careful not to tear the skin, and avoid cutting into the flesh.” I still remember, decades later, trying not to mangle the skin or the flesh so as not to displease Marcella.
She insisted on authenticity. As the obituaries noted, she often reproved American for the overuse of garlic in their overzealous versions of italian cooking. So it came as something of a surprise to learn from the very good New York Times obituary, that when she married Victor Hazan and reluctantly moved to New York City in 1955, she did not know how to cook. She taught herself, relying on her husband’s copy of an Ada Boni Italian cookbook and the memory of what she had eaten. Only then did she become the oracle of what was true and original to Tuscany and Emilia Romagna. Not unlike Julia Child who became the voice of true French cooking. Or St. Paul, who fell off his horse, stopped persecuting Christians and wrote the cookbook for Christianity. Marcella’s description of what happened to her is a matter of inspiration. “Cooking came to me as though it had been there all along, waiting to be expressed; it came as words come to a child when it is time for her to speak,” she wrote in her 2008 memoir, Amarcord: Marcella Remembers. No matter how it happened, we are the better for it.