Her husband, Victor, was always by her side. And now he is the ghost in the machine. Victor’s eloquent, wistful Facebook posts feature shared stories and ratings, curious questions and poetic mini-essays, all signed with his own name since Marcella’s death in 2013. He completed her latest book, “Ingredienti,” in 2016, working from her sparse notes . He wrote the foreword for the new edition of the 30th anniversary of its historic title, ‘Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking’.
At the age of 94, with impaired eyesight, he writes much less than before, but his tribute has revealed another truth: as long as Victor remains, the Marcella that knew the world has not completely disappeared.
“Well, we’ve been close for a long time, almost 60 years,” Victor said before a recent book signing in Seattle. “We weren’t close just 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 chefs found another way to homemade Bolognese or three-ingredient tomato sauce or pork braised in milk. The first fork in that road would be on the day in 1952 that Victor Hazan visited the Adriatic coast of Italy.
“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 such an offer. And he introduced me to Marcella…”
“From that moment on, we were more or less inseparable.”
Their marriage was by and large unremarkable – lasting, loving, generally happy. The culinary history came from the details.
Marcella was a biologist with two doctorates. She “had never cooked in her life,” Victor said. Her character was forged in hardships, from a crippling arm injury to the horrors and hardships of World War II to a “raging misogynist” college professor who slowed her career.
According to Victor, her toughness even came from her home on the coast.
Cesenatico “wasn’t a seaside town, it was a pure fishing village”, with a mentality of “this power to conquer, to fight and to win … and to know what the target was.”
Victor, on the other hand, had left Italy with his Jewish family for New York in 1939, yearning through war years for the day when he could return. He missed his beloved grandmother, his friends, neighborhoods, the language — and the meals. “I’ve loved food since I was, you know, old enough to recognize food,” he said.
He told Marcella with “uncomfortable” 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 that’s where the second fork came in the way. Finances forced her to return to New York after their marriage, where she felt the same culture shock and isolation that Victor had experienced.
“There was nothing but me,” Victor said. “And the need to produce food.”
She taught herself to cook brilliantly, using memories and what Victor calls a “great empathy” for ingredients – and the trained focus of a scientist with a special love for botany.
“She was very precise, she had a great gift for observation. It was great to walk through the woods with Marcella because she took every leaf, every branch, every blade of grass and told you stories about it,” Victor said. “She had these spiral notebooks and she started taking notes about the food she was cooking because she thought it would help her record what she had done.”
She eventually taught cooking classes, caught the attention of New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne, and eventually an invitation to write a cookbook. She protested that she was writing in Italian, not English. However, she was married to someone who was.
Make the recipe: Tomato Sauce III by Marcella Hazan
Marcella switched to legal-sized notebooks, sometimes writing recipes and ‘preambles’ very quickly 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 thinking,” Victor said.
“I’ve been working all day [in advertising, originally in his parents’ furrier business], and in the evening I came home. I had a small portable typewriter,’ he said. “Marcella made dinner. It was always great. And I got up from the table after dinner and went to the bedroom and typed there until 1 or 2 am.
Marcella told a newspaper in 1974 that the book also belonged to Victor – not just through translations, but because she cooked for his taste buds.
The rest is history – another 40 years or so, filled with steady work and formal recognition of Marcella’s talent and impact. More books followed the first. Marcella taught cooking and ran cooking schools in Italy. Victor eventually left his job to help and wrote his own book on Italian wine. They enjoyed years in Venice (“the best place in the world to live in the world,” Victor said) before failing health took them to Longboat Key, Florida, in part to be close to their son Giuliano’s family.
“She’s part of history,” Victor said, with more than rhetoric: The National Museum of American History is in talks with him and Giuliano about purchasing her notebooks and other artifacts. A filmmaker, Peter Miller, is making a documentary about her life.
That night at the limited-capacity Book Larder bookstore in Seattle (“I’m very old. I’m getting tired,” Victor said before sitting down for a one-hour interview, followed by an hour-long Q&A. and a book signing), the audience seemed to know they were connected to the end of an era. They asked how Victor and Marcella met, what her process was like making recipes, what it feels like to celebrate the book’s birthday, what his favorite dish was.
Finally, he thinks of the meal that was more complicated than most of her recipes, the multi-layer lasagna with hand-rolled sheets of delicate spinach pasta she would make every October 20, his birthday. The recipe is in the book, but no one, he says, makes it like her. “No one.”
What does he miss about Marcella? Her fierce intelligence. They took pottery classes together. Her skill at ikebana. Their lunchtime discussions, and the lunches themselves, prepared fresh from the market every day she wasn’t travelling. “We had a lot of fun,” he says.
If an element of Marcella remains with him here, it is possible that by the same calculation a piece of Victor has now disappeared. However, that is not how he feels about their legacy.
“Her books will be well appreciated as long as there are chefs willing to cook well for their families, their friends and for themselves,” Victor said.
“Marcella is forever.”