Ave Marcella

by jkatejohnston

Marcella Hazan died a few days ago. My mom sent me the link.


This weekend maybe I’ll cook a Marcella Tribute Dinner: pasta with peppers and bacon; eggplant preserved in oil; cauliflower salad with red pepper, olives and anchovies; marinated oranges with orange peel and caramel. (Fat chance but doesn’t it sound good?) Maybe I’ll get on the phone with my mom (hands free devices only) while we cook Marcella together. Kind of like phone sex. Only food. And with your mom. (Hi mommy!)

Here’s what I wrote about Marcella in my food book, which, as I keep saying, really isn’t bad. Delusions For Breakfast available on Amazon!


Near the beginning of Marcella’s Italian Cooking there’s a section titled: The Taste of Italian Cooking: Elementary Rules. And then there’s one page of short, direct, axiomatic principles. Many of them I will never follow. But I love reading them, knowing what they are, wishing to follow them and relishing the few that describe what I’m already doing anyway, such as: “Do not clarify butter” or “Do not esteem so-called fresh pasta more than the dry, factory made variety.” There’s something bracing about all that natural authority fit onto one page. It’s like The Elements of Style, the  Constitution or the Decalogue—brevity and authority in close relationship.  Anyway, here they are:

  • Use no Parmesan that is not parmigiano-reggiano.
  • Never buy grated cheese of any kind; grate cheese fresh when ready to use it.
  • With exceedingly rare exceptions, do not add grated Parmesan to pasta whose sauce has been cooked with olive oil.
  • Use only extra virgin olive oil
  • Dress salads with no other oil but olive
  • Do not use prepared salad dressings, even if prepared at home. Mix the condiments into the salad when you are tossing it. Toss salads just before serving.
  • Use herbs and spices sparingly. Think of them as a halo, not a club.
  • Do not confuse stock with meat broth. Meat broth is what goes into Italian cooking.
  • When ripe, fresh tomatoes are in season, do not use the canned.
  • Abstain from using frozen vegetables, except for frozen leaf spinach, which can be substituted for fresh in making green pasta.
  • Do not overcook pasta.
  • Do not precook pasta.
  • Do not esteem so-called fresh pasta more than the dry, factory-made variety.
  • Match the sauce to the pasta, taking into account the shape and texture of pasta.
  • Do not buy prepared pasta salads, pre-cooked or frozen pasta, or stuffed pasta.
  • Do not turn heavy cream into a warm bath for pasta or for anything else. Reduce it, reduce it, reduce it.
  • Vegetables and beans are, on occasion, passed through a food mill. Do not process them to a cream. In Italian cooking there is no cream of anything soup.
  • Do not serve fowl rare. Italian birds are cooked through and through.
  • Do not clarify butter.
  • When making risotto, use only Italian varieties grown for that purpose.
  • Find a butcher who will cut scaloppine across the grain from the top round.
  • Unless you are on a medically prescribed diet, do not shrink from using what salt is necessary to draw out the flavor of food.

Of course I can’t afford to use no Parmesan that is not parmigianno-reggiano. It costs $23 a pound, and that’s more than shoes. Still, there’s something wonderfully emphatic about the double-negative, no Parmesan that is not. I feel like saluting when I hear that. But I still buy second rate cheese. And yes I usually grate my own, but sometimes I buy the pre-grated in the plastic tub, feeling mildly furtive and ashamed. And as for no parmesan with olive oil sauces—why not?

My favorite rules describe what I’m already doing anyway. They’re like praise without the embarrassment. “Unless you are on a medically prescribed diet, do not shrink from using what salt is necessary to draw out the flavor of food.” Three cheers for that advice. And I like the word shrink. People are such cowards about a little salt. They have no idea how much salt is in the store-bought foods they’re used to eating, so they get all timid about salting the pasta water, sprinkling in a few useless grains. I salt everything, even hot chocolate (you should try it).

The rule about dressing salads is smart because it encourages simplicity. I used to shake-shake-shake the dressing in a little jar. Or use a whisk and slow-poured olive oil, straining for an emulsion, which always separated. Now my favorite dressing is olive oil, salt and pepper, right on the leaves. Maybe a touch of balsamic or lemon. Maybe.

But I don’t think I’ve got across why Marcella’s so great. Back when I was an English major I thought the perfect paper would be just my favorite parts of the book, typed, with a big Amen at the end. In that spirit, here is what Marcella says in a section called Cooking: A Language

All that really matters in food is its flavor. It matters not that it be novel, that it look picture-pretty, that it be made with unusual or costly or currently fashionable ingredients, that it be served by candlelight, that it display intricacy of execution, that it be invested with the glory of a celebrated name. Such incidentals may add circumstantial interest to the business of eating, but they add nothing to taste and signify nothing when taste is lacking.

Taste is produced by the expressive use of the cuisines that have come down to us. One becomes fluent in a cuisine as in a language: Expression must be vigorous, clear, concise. There can be no unnecessary ingredient or unnecessary step. A dish may indeed be complicated, but in terms of taste every component, every procedure must count.

Do not strain for originality. It ought never to be a goal, but it can be a consequence of your intuitions. [I love that.] If the purpose of flavor is to arouse a special kind of emotion, that flavor must emerge from genuine feelings about the materials you are handling. What you are, you cook.

Do not arbitrarily shuffle the vocabulary of one cuisine with that of another in an attempt to make your cooking “new.” There is no more use for such a hybrid than there is for Esperanto. The cuisines available to us have all the flexibility we can handle with felicity, and more variety than our invention can exhaust.

I am not suggesting that one must cook in pedantic submission to unalterable formulas. I hope the recipes in this book demonstrate that I do not. I am suggesting that the discipline of a cuisine’s syntax, cadence, native idiom can make invention and improvisation eloquent rather than contrived.

My New Year’s Resolution was going to be: Follow recipes. More or Less. Now and Then. Because I think my fault in cooking is a lack of discipline. I’m addicted to improvisation, and I hate measuring. In my life cookbooks are for reading, not for cooking. But, as with all New Year’s Resolutions, there was a reason you weren’t doing that in the first place—you don’t want to!

So instead I will devote myself to Marcella for a year or so, actually cooking the recipes, not slavishly, mind you, but pretty close. And I think I’ll start with cauliflower with pinenuts and raisins, page 256. It’s occurring to me only this moment that discipline and disciple are more or less the same word. And since I already worship Marcella, what could be more natural?

But I want to say more about authority. I’m a lawyer, so I run into unearned authority all the time—judges, stuck up on that pedestal, just as foolish as the rest of us and so few of them know it, god help them. And how true authority is instantly recognizable, whatever the subject.

Marcella teaches you not just how to eat but how to live. But mostly how to eat.