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The Food Writer as Culture Broker

I first came across Marcella Hazan’s tomato and onion pasta sauce on Molly Wizenberg’s blog Orangette. I remembered it – like so many people, I imagine – because of its odd method: simmer a large tin of plum tomatoes in a pan with a peeled, halved onion, and five tablespoons of butter. This sounded so unlikely – so unlike any other recipe I’d ever read for tomato-based pasta sauce – that I was sceptical as to whether it would work. And since then I’ve found the same recipe on nearly every other decent food blog I tend to visit.

I got round to making it last week, after reading so much about Hazan’s life in the incredible number of respectful, and even loving, obituaries and articles written after her death a week ago. The sauce is unbelievably good: it is rich without being sickly, fresh without being too sharp. My only suggestion is that you make it with very, very good tinned, or slightly overripe fresh, tomatoes.

Probably because my knowledge of Italian cooking comes through British sources, Marcella Hazan never featured for me in the same way as did Anna del Conte. The most I’d read about her was in The Pedant in the Kitchen by Julian Barnes:

The writer I find most reassuring … is Marcella Hazan. This came as a surprise when I first started cooking from her. I had always imagined that since Italian cuisine, of all the major European styles, depends on pure and often speedy handling of the freshest ingredients, there was little room for manoeuvre.

Hazan freely lists plausible alternatives; is indulgent about dried herbs; actively recommends tinned tomatoes as tasting better than most fresh; often prefers dried porcini and bottled clams to their fresh equivalents. She spares you suffering by noting which dishes can be cooked to which stage ahead of time.

He concludes:

Marcella Hazan was beatified. Her recipes not only give the anxious Pedant as much latitude as possible, they also produce, in my experience, a higher percentage of successes, and a truer authenticity of taste, than any I know.

High praise indeed.

What struck me in so much of what I read about her – other than her two doctorates, one in biology and natural sciences – is how often she was described as translating Italian cooking for American kitchens.

When she moved to the United States with her husband in 1955, Hazan not only needed to learn how to cook, but she had to find ways of recreating the dishes of her native Italy in a country which didn’t sell the ingredients she needed. Combined with formidable teaching skills and a deeply practical attitude towards cooking, the knowledge she acquired while teaching herself to make familiar foods in an unfamiliar culture, transformed her into an authority on Italian cooking for American audiences.

The reason for her success – which began with the publication of The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating in 1973 – was not that she wrote down recipes as she would have cooked them in Italy, but that she adapted them for how Americans shopped and cooked. It is this which Barnes praises: her willingness to use a range of processed or not-particularly-Italian foods which, she felt, recreated the ‘authentic’ (whatever we may mean by that) taste of home.


Cooks have long been involved in making national identities. Encarnación Pinado’s El cocinero español (The Spanish Chef), published in 1898, was an attempt to establish an ‘authentic’ Mexican cuisine. Similarly, shortly after Italian union, Pellegrino Artusi manufactured a ‘real’ Italian food culture in his 1891 book La scienza in cucian e l’arte di mangier bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well).

These recipe books were intended partly to explain to Mexicans and Italians what constituted their national cuisines. Food is a potent means of uniting a nation, particularly if that nation happens to have been recently made. As obvious as it sounds, it’s worth paying attention, too, to those food writers who translate their cuisines mainly for foreign audiences.

In a way, food writers become culture brokers: the people who mediate between different cultures, who explain and translate one group to another.  Although Hazan found an enthusiastic audience of Italians at home, she is remembered for having introduced America to ‘real’ Italian cooking.

I think, though, that she mediated far more than food. As Elizabeth David and Julia Child did for France, Claudia Roden did for the Middle East and Mediterranean, Madhur Jaffrey did for India, and Ken Hom did for China, she introduced Americans to a version – to her version – of Italy. When they read her books or watched her on television, they also learned something about Italy.

So when we think of the complicated ways in which national identities are created – and these are made in a tension between internal and external perceptions of a particular country or political entity – we need also to include those food and recipe book writers who translate and mediate the cooking of one group of people to another. How do they represent one nation to another? Why do they emphasise some aspects of a nation’s cooking, and not others? And to what extent do they tailor their writing to fit or complement pre-existing stereotypes about other countries?

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16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Anne Mendelson #

    I don’t think Marcella Hazan’s appeal is simply that she projected her own appealing personality as an Italian cook. She did something much more important: She made people like me, entirely ignorant of Italian cooking, somehow understand the art of letting ingredients speak for themselves — letting them fit themselves into a simple, graceful result with the least possible pretension and pose-striking on the part of the cook.

    October 6, 2013
    • Oh I agree entirely. What interests me is that she also projected a particular image of Italy to American audiences – and I think that this is worth exploring a little more carefully.

      October 6, 2013
  2. highlatitudes #

    Ek is nou sommer honger!

    October 6, 2013
  3. Like you, not being American, I did not grow up on Marcella Hazan’s cooking – in fact, I have to admit that I did not know much about her until this past week (and your post has really made me realise I should get to know her better). But I regularly cook from and write about Artusi’s cookbook and I wanted to add to the wonderful points you’ve already made about how food unifies a nation that Artusi’s book also did it through language. Unification was a problem with the regions still speaking dialects rather than “Italian”, but as Piero Camporesi (who edited the 1970 version of La Scienza in Cucina) suggested, it was Artusi’s cookbook that did more than any politician to bring the country together with one national language. To quote Gillian Riley, “Innocent housewives throughout the land were consulting their ‘Artusi’ every day, and his literate, slightly colloquial, Florentine version of Tuscan… became reassuringly familiar.”

    October 6, 2013
    • Oh that’s so interesting – I had no idea that the book was so significant in creating ‘Italian’ too. I wonder if the same happened in Mexico, Germany, and Spain?

      October 7, 2013
  4. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) #

    Anything with 5 tablespoons of butter is going straight on my Must Cook list. 😉 I think your point about *complementing* stereotypes is very significant; we are perhaps more drawn to think in terms of ‘difference’ in social theory, but the introduction of new food and ways of eating may work better (i.e. in a practical ‘buy my cookbook’ sense) through models of familiarity and safety (coupled of course with issues of status and competitiveness!).

    October 7, 2013
    • Ha! Yes indeed – and the sauce is so interesting partly because it doesn’t taste of butter at all.

      And what an interesting observation. I agree, in our focus on difference/the ((un)wittingly) subversive, we tend to ignore the ways in which stereotypes are maintained and bolstered – and how important they are to shaping identities.

      October 7, 2013
  5. This is so interesting! On a related note, I made her roast chicken with two lemons at the weekend, and it was a triumph. I feel very warm toward her as a result and wish I’d discovered her before the obits started popping up all over the web.

    October 9, 2013
    • Oh really? I’ve read recipes for that and now I’ll definitely try it. The tomato sauce is *unbelievably* good, and keeps well – I had the rest of it last night and it was still delicious.

      October 9, 2013
      • Excellent – I’ll try the tomato sauce, and you try the chicken. Try to use lemons with really thin skins if you can – the more juice, the better. 🙂

        October 9, 2013
        • Thanks! I’ll most definitely try it then.

          October 9, 2013
  6. On Marcella’s Sugo di Pomodoro 111 (the simple, four-ingredient one) I actually think you can taste the butter – well, I can anyway. On my recent blogpost about the unusual addition of butter, some replies have suggested it’s an Emilia-Romagna thing. Strange, then that Artusi uses olive oil. Any suggestions for the use of butter welcome!

    October 9, 2013
    • I’m sure the flavour of the sauce also depends on the kind of butter you use. I used an unsalted butter, but would be curious to try it with a cultured, salted butter too – it would, I imagine, taste more ‘buttery’.

      I think that what this recipe demonstrates is that ‘national’ cuisines (a heavily constructed idea) are fluid and changing. The idea that people in Emilia-Romagna or Puglia only cook in very particular ways which extend only to the boundaries of each province does not reflect the complexity of people’s eating and cooking.

      October 10, 2013
    • It’s not so strange that Artusi uses olive oil; he spent a good deal of his life in Florence, as the many Tuscan recipes in his cookbook hint at. He does let his Emilian heritage slip through every now and then, though – for his tomato sauce, for example, he suggests serving on pasta with cheese and butter, something a Tuscan would never do. The use of butter is definitely more common in Emilia-Romagna, but I’m wondering if the butter in Hazan’s recipe is more of an adaption — for example, if good olive oil wasn’t available to her or her readers at the time and butter was a more familiar ingredient? Just a thought.

      October 10, 2013
      • Yes – that makes sense to me. Essentially, the way we cook changes over time.

        October 10, 2013

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