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For Marcella Hazan, before the fame, there was always food

LONGBOAT KEY

Italian cooking doyenne Marcella Hazan has had many lives.

There were the early years in Egypt that ended abruptly with a broken arm when she was 7. Her family returned to Italy for better care, and even then she almost lost her limb. That accident, she says, shaped her life in many ways.

There were the World War II years, when as a teenager she barely survived the German occupation. There also was the academic life — she has doctorates in natural sciences and biology — and the life of a young married woman who could speak very little English in 1950s New York.

Then, when she was in her 40s, came the culinary life. Encouraged by her husband, Victor, and introduced to the world by a feature story in the New York Times, Hazan began her accidental crusade to teach Americans how to cook Italian authentically. And that meant making pesto from fresh herbs and using real Parmesan cheese, not the stuff in the green cardboard shaker.

Then came the famous years that continue still. For most of those, she and Victor split their time between New York and Italy. Her cookbooks (Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and Marcella Cucina among them) became bestsellers, and she was in much demand for personal appearances and as a cooking teacher. She is often compared with Julia Child, who brought French cooking into American homes. Hazan, however, did not earn mass-market notoriety the way Child did largely because she never became a mainstay on television.

Now 84 and living in a condo overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, Hazan just published her seventh book, Amarcord: Marcella Remembers (Gotham Books, $27.59). It has no recipes but contains plenty of the spunk she is known for.

Hazan will share the stories of her life Saturday at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading. Her son, Giuliano Hazan, a cookbook author and teacher himself, will make opening remarks. Victor will be there, too. After all, he has been an integral part of all her books.

A visit with Marcella

Last month, as Hurricane Ike barreled toward Texas, Hazan sat at her dining room table and talked about the experience of writing a memoir. Outside, waves crashed ashore with the grinding rhythm of a mortar and pestle; over and over they came.

Hazan is not a woman who minces words. She likes to teach — anything, she says — but doesn't suffer fools. Once, when asked by a student how well something would freeze, Hazan was befuddled.

"Why do you want to freeze it?" she asked the student. "Just cook it and eat it."

These days, she's irritated with Italian restaurants that stray too far from their roots. "Sauce is seasoning. We should not be eating sauce with pasta, but pasta with sauce."

She thinks food writers are missing the point. "They talk about this and that, but nobody talks about taste. Food is losing its flavor. This should be the topic of food writing."

She is notoriously opinionated, which may be what led to the hurtful breakup with her longtime editor, the legendary Judith Jones at Knopf. That painful part of her life is chronicled in Amarcord, too.

On page, in life

Reading Amarcord and talking with Hazan are two distinctly different experiences. The book is eloquent, even flowery sometimes. It's a smooth read.

In person, Hazan sometimes struggles to find the English words to express herself. She prefers her native Italian, where she is comfortable. She never learned to write English.

"It doesn't have enough rules. In Italian, an 'f' is an 'f.' English sounds like one long word to me," she says.

She is more steely than cozy, but part of that may be the language barrier. Hazan thinks nothing of chasing a reporter from her kitchen when she is in the way. She still smokes but doesn't want her photo taken with a lit cigarette cradled between her fingers.

"What?" she barks when a question doesn't make sense. Mostly it's not the question, but that it was spoken too fast. It's easy to see how feelings could get hurt, but then she laughs that smoky, gravelly laugh and all is forgiven.

It is really Victor who does the writing for Hazan's books. He's a former fur salesman, ad man and wine writer who, at 80 years old, retains the flashes of the dashing man who swept young Marcella Polini off her feet so many years ago.

The Hazans work in tandem. She fills pages and pages with longhand notes, and he turns her Italian into English prose. They've shared a lot of experiences since their 1956 wedding, which made the memoir both easy and difficult to write.

"Up until Victor (came into my life), I could say anything," Hazan says about writing the story of her early years. "Then we fought a little. 'No, that was not in that restaurant, it was in this one.' There were other things we didn't remember the same."

The book was written between Longboat Key and Venice, Italy, where she was able to mine old friends about their memories of her life.

Spending so much time in the past brought back both wonderful times and sad, difficult days. World War II and family members now gone permeated her thoughts.

"You live again through those moments," she says. "There are many things that happened; I don't know how I survived."

She survived quite well in fact, and now Marcella Hazan remembers.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8586.

>>if you go

Festival of Reading

The 16th annual St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the University of South Florida, 140 Seventh Ave. S in St. Petersburg. About 60 authors will give talks and sign books. There is also a book market and food court.

A complete list of events and author schedules will appear in a special section inside Thursday's Weekend. For more information, go to festivalofreading.com.

Authors talking about their new food-related books include:

Marcella Hazan, Amarcord: Marcella Remembers, 11:15 a.m. in the Campus Activities Center.

Marsha Dean Phelts, The American Beach Cookbook, 12:15 p.m. in Room 118, Florida Center for Teachers.

Janet K. Keeler, St. Petersburg Times food and travel editor, O Christmas Treats!, a compilation of readers' Christmas cookie recipes, 1:45 p.m. in Room 105, Davis Hall.

Martha Hall Foose, Screen Doors and Sweet Tea, 2:45 p.m. in Room 118, Florida Center for Teachers.

For Marcella Hazan, before the fame, there was always food 10/21/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 20, 2008 4:24pm]

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