If Ina Garten is an inspiration, the woman who helped me see there was another path for me than the one I was on, then Marcella Hazan is a muse, a teacher whose lessons I’ve taken to heart without strictly following her recipes. I’ve owned Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking for years and cherished it for its knowledge, its wisdom, and most of all its respect for food, but I’ve only rarely cooked from it. There’s something daunting about its jam-packed pages, its thoroughness, its suggestion that this is the unquestionably proper way to make any particular recipe. But I’ve spent hours paging through it, soaking up ideas and techniques.
Yesterday I saw my friend M. He’s a big muckety-muck at Harpercollins publishers. Knowing I’d be seeing him, I sent him the sweetest little email requesting Marcella’s latest, and he greeted me with it at his office. We had a brief, gossipy chat—I arrived late, and he had a meeting—and then it was time for me to go. His secretary escorted me out (I told you he was a muckety-muck). I pushed the elevator button and realized…I’d left Marcella Says… on his conference table! There were about six people in his office now, having an actual meeting on actual work-type stuff. Going back would require me to pass back through the locked doors to his floor, navigate back to his office, and interrupt him. Did I hesitate? No.
Once safely at home, I took Marcella to bed with me last night—S is very understanding that way. As it turns out, this is a very different book from Essentials. There’s a lovely introductory essay, in which she explains exactly why and how the book came about. It’s based on her cooking classes, which I very much wish I’d had the chance to take, and cooking at her home in Florida—where she shops in the Publix market, like everyone else.
Here’s a section I particularly enjoyed:
“If you like, you could regard the work in this book simply as an update on what continues to take place in my kitchen. I see it, however, as a narrative, a collection of tales that needed telling. Cooking is ideal material for stories. The expression ‘cooking up a story’ is not an accidental one. The gathering and preparation of food is a tale without end, the oldest one in the memory of our race, perhaps the first use to which language may have been put at that prehistoric campfire….
“In each recipe there is a story, an adventure with a beginning, a middle, and—I hope—a happy ending. The characters that animate those adventures are ingredients, whose actions are prefigured by their dispositions but piloted by the cook, a cook whose role as navigator is succeeded by that of narrator. And that is my justification for writing this book: I have some delicious new stories to tell you.”
Not that I’d ever put myself in the same class as Marcella, but that’s exactly what I’m trying to do here, with Words to Eat By. To me food is inextricably linked with everything else that goes on in life, so a recipe is always, always a story. It may be a batch of popovers taking me back to childhood, or a scattering of caraway seeds in a tuna salad to remind me of my grandfather. I’m sure your food stories are equally charged emotionally.
After the introduction, there’s a nearly 80-page section entitled “At Master Class,” which is personal and informative and plain old good reading. Headings include When Is It Done?, Inside Boxed Macaroni Pasta, On the Importance of Bread Crumbs, Recycling Leftovers, and The Kitchen I Live In. I haven’t had a chance to really read any of this yet—last night was the introduction and skimming over the recipes—but I’m eager to get to know Marcella further through her warm and illuminating voice. Starting on page 89 are the recipes themselves, and oooooo-ooo are there some wonderful-sounding dishes here. Some of the ones I’ve flagged:
• Victor’s Parmesan and Olive Oil Crostino
• Baked Squash and Parmesan Cheese Pudding (this sounds INCREDIBLE)
• Boiled Rice with Black and Green Olives and Chili Pepper
• Sicilian Pesto (with almonds and mint and dried red chili pepper)
• Carrot Gnocchi
• Fricaseed Chicken with Fresh Herbs and Sun-Dried Tomatoes
• Spicy Meatballs with Bell Peppers (using a fresh jalapeno!)
• Sauteed Artichokes Baked with Mozzarella
• Mashed Potatoes with Baked Onions
• Bread Pudding with Chocolate and Apples
It won’t be long before Marcella moves from my bedside table into my kitchen.
(And speaking of Bread Pudding, have you voted yet? Polls close Friday!)