Archive | December, 2015

Three cheers for Mrs. Hay-zen–in a time of troubles

5 Dec


There are many tumultuous and disturbing topics to reflect on these days. For the past month, each day has brought more bad news. But in this installment, I choose to focus on Marcella Hazan. To those who do not know this name, she is to Italian cooking what Julia Childs is to the French. Neva gave me a copy of Hazan’s, The Classic Italian Cook Book, on my fifty-first birthday, 1983. For the next twenty-eight years, until we moved into a retirement community, that book was next to the Bible as the most important book in my life, and Marcella Hazan was in the top five of my favorite people. I was the chief cook in our house in those days, and this book opened up a wonderful world for me. She was “Mrs. HAY-zen” to me for most of those years; I did encounter a few put-downs by those who corrected me–it’s Mrs. “Ha-ZON,” they said.

Her name nevertheless remains HAY-zen to me. But then, I still refer to the Saint as AW-gus-STEEN, as I learned it in college, rather than the recently more “correct” Aw-GUS-tin. Some things remain so deeply engrained that correction never takes hold.

Marcella’s name came to the fore recently in conversation (over dinner) with a new resident, for whom The Classic Italian Cook Book was equally significant. Who would have imagined!

Since Marcella explained everything in meticulous detail, she was a perfect mentor to this neophyte cook. Take her recipe for risi e bisi (rice and peas), which is a favorite of mine. She realized that there are three possibilities for the peas–fresh, canned, and frozen–so she included recipe variations for each. Doing homemade pasta was made less daunting by her detailed instructions (which were translated into English by husband Victor) and line drawings (by George Kazumi). She rejected the “chef” title–a chef is a manager, she wrote, while the “cook” actually prepares food lovingly for the family.

Her philosophical–or we might say “theological”–commentary on cooking won my heart from the beginning. A few excerpts:

Italy’s food “is the product of two arts, the art of cooking and the art of eating. The art of cooking produces the dishes, but it is the art of eating that transforms them into a meal.” (xv)

“An Italian meal is a story told from nature, taking its rhythms, its humors, its bounty and turning them into episodes for the senses. As nature is not a one-act play, so an Italian meal cannot rest on a single dish. It is instead a lively sequence of events, alternating the crisp with soft and yielding, the pungent with the bland, the variable with the staple, the elaborate with the simple.” (7-8)

“What we find in the cooking of Italy is a long-established intimacy between the human and the natural orders. The Italian comes to his table with the same open heart with which a child falls into his mother’s arms, with the same easy feeling of being in the right place.” (459)

How can you resist this woman? That thought occurred to me last evening at dinner. During the meal, someone decided to hold a fire drill, with buzzers and an announcement over the PA system that we should not let the interminable noises interrupt our meal. The art of cooking might have produced a tasty meal, but the art of eating was rendered impossible. Surely Marcella Hazan was frowning. The child in its mother’s arms needed ear plugs.

Hazan made vegetables irresistible to both children and adults. She taught me to place both sweet (lettuce, cabbage, spinach) and bitter (collard and mustard, kale) greens in the steamer, remove them to be sautéed lightly with olive oil and garlic, form them into rolls, if you like–and enjoy.

And then there’s risotto. Arborio rice with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and whatever other ingredient you wish–perhaps bacon, chopped escarole, asparagus, or shellfish. Need I say more?

If you don’t know the book, The Classic Italian Cook Book, or one of its successors, I advise you to spend a pleasant hour leafing through it. Or, if you are also a Hazan fan, respond with your favorite recipes.

Is it appropriate to indulge in the hedonism of Italian cooking when the news is filled with the killings in San Bernardino and Paris, and the corrupt tricks being played out by the moment in Chicago, where I’m writing this blog?

Food is a key part of our lives in good times and bad. Of the arts, cooking and eating are the most everyday, the most down-to-earth, crossing borders of race, gender, nationality, and social class. Italian cooking is an especially earthy and accessible art. It’s food of the people, in contrast to the French and Chinese, who have raised their cuisine to high culture–haute cuisine. High culture cooking is best served in restaurants, while Italian food flourishes in the home or in a neighborhood trattoria.

The social class differences between the elaborate meals in a fine Chinese restaurant and the diners bent over their bowls in a noodle parlor are striking, as are the contrasts between the neighborhood French bistro and the richly starred Michelin restaurant. The excellence of haute cuisine seems be measured by how many bizarre manipulations the chef can impose on nature’s bounty. I fear that the United States is on the slippery slide toward haute cuisine.

But, as Marcella exemplifies, Italian cooking puts to the fore our relation to the good things of nature. It puts food over cuisine and cooks over chefs.
These values of Italian cooking and eating are life-affirming in good times and in bad. I hereby elevate Mrs. HAY-zen to my personal calendar of saints.
(c) Phil Hefner 12/4/2015