Behind every successful man, as they say, is a great woman. In the case of the late, great Marcella Hazan, however, it is her husband Victor who played a quiet but instrumental role in her long and impactful career as a cooking teacher and writer.
Marcella and Victor met in the early 1950s in Marcella’s hometown of Cesenatico, on the Adriatic coast of Italy. The match wasn’t necessarily preordained to succeed. Victor was jobless, hoping to become a writer, and his father actually flew to Italy from America to talk Marcella’s parents out of giving their consent. Victor was obsessed with food. Marcella didn’t think about food much. She was just finishing up her PhD in biology and natural science. Victor had decided to return to Italy instead of finishing his college degree in the US.
And yet, it ended up being a match for the ages. The Tuscan winemaker Paolo de Marchi recalled to me recently that though their visit to his estate had been more than 30 years previous, he clearly recalled Marcella and Victor as a striking and memorable couple. They always made an impression. Marcella died in 2013, after 58 years of marriage to Victor.
After their wedding in 1955, they relocated to New York and Victor became resigned to work for his father’s business, an undertaking that never truly fulfilled him. Marcella spent time working at a lab and for the first time learning to cook. As she recalled later in life:
There I was, having to feed a young, hard-working husband who could deal cheerfully with most of life’s ups and downs, but not with an indifferent meal.
Despite her lack of experience, cooking came naturally to Marcella. More than a decade later, her passion for and mastery of her native cooking led to a career first as a cooking teacher, and later as an author of cookbooks.
It is no exaggeration to say that Marcella introduced an American audience to Italian cooking just as Julia Child did for French cooking.
But Marcella didn’t like to write in English, even though she was completely fluent. And so she would write her books in her native Italian. Victor would then take her Italian text and translate it into English as he imagined Marcella speaking or writing it. Thus began one of the great collaborations in cooking in the 20th century.
Even more grueling than the translation was the editing of the recipes. Victor himself didn’t cook much, and so he offered Marcella the perspective of a beginner, a novice, as so many of her readers and students would be. When she omitted a detail she found obvious, Victor would counter, “Well, it’s not obvious to me!”
Later, Marcella taught week-long courses in Bologna, and then later still in Venice. Victor was more interested in wine than Marcella was, and because he was still working for the family business in New York, he would leave with her written descriptions of the wines that would accompany the dishes Marcella was cooking for her classes. Her editor Judith Jones was impressed by these descriptions and suggested to Victor that he write a book on Italian wine, which was at that time (the late 1970s) finally starting to make inroads in America.
Victor agreed. He finally ended his work for the family business and spent several years traveling throughout Italy, tasting wines, meeting with winemakers, and deepening his understanding of Italian viticulture. The resulting book, Italian Wine, published in 1982, remains my single favorite book on Italian wine written in English. For sure it is dated in many respects – so much has changed in the last 35 years – but its foundation and principles are amazing sound and relevant.
And because Victor is a talented writer, it reads far more compellingly than most books on wine. How could one, for example, not wish to explore the rich world of dessert wines after reading this:
[Dessert wines] disclose to us, as no dry wine is capable of doing, the sensuous power of this miraculous drink, a transubstantiation of fruit and sun into honeyed liquid.
Or perhaps this description of Bardolino, one of my very favorite wines:
There is no prettier landscape anywhere than the sweet hills of Bardolino facing lake Garda and the sunset, a serene pattern of vineyards, olive trees, cypresses, castles, and Veronese villas in pale pink stone, arranged on gently inclined slopes, lit by the cheerful shimmer of the lake-reflected light. It deserves to be called charming as well as any place on earth, probably more so than most, and produces a wine to match.
Or this description of another favorite:
No wine is so reviving to a toiling palate or flagging spirits as [Lambrusco]. Whenever I reach Bologna after a long, taxing drive on the high-speed Italian turnpikes, there is no other drink I want at the table.
And finally this depressing but important insight about appreciating the aroma of wine:
Another problem is our impoverished store of remembered smells. The fragrances of honestly ripened fruit of wild berries and mushrooms, of field flowers, of wood have been edited out of everyday experience and replaced by those of plastic film, metal foil, polymers, and acetate.
For many of us, it will be necessary to replenish the depleted stores of our olfactory memory, conducting our noses through produce markets, gardens, fields, woods, wherever it can assemble the most varied collection of well-identified impressions. Most of what a wine has to tell is spoken by its odors. Smelling is the most intimate contact we have with wine, when we draw close to, as it were, its very breath.
Such evocative and powerful writing about wine is rare, and for this reason Italian Wine remains relevant 35 years after publication.
Many of us hoped that Victor would update his book or write a new one. He nearly did. But when he revisited the topic 15 years later, he found a changed Italian wine world: too many producers who had sacrificed an emphasis on terroir and place with an emphasis on style and international grape varieties. He had never found so many well-made wines in Italy, but he had never tasted so few that truly spoke with an Italian character.
Instead he continued to collaborate with Marcella on cookbooks and with her classes in Venice. As she got older and it became harder for her to get around, Victor would walk to Marcella’s beloved Rialto market to shop for meat, vegetables, and especially fish.
Marcella had rightfully earned respect, fame, and adoration. But Victor remained in his quiet but essential role as adoring husband, thoughtful interlocutor, helpful collaborator, and companion at table. Almost every dish Marcella ever cooked or published first passed through the table she had prepared for lunch or dinner with Victor. Their enjoyment of food, their conversations about food, made Marcella’s teaching and writing so much better.
After Marcella died in 2013, Victor decided to maintain her Facebook page as a vehicle for people to continue to share the influence which Marcella had on them and also to update her fans with his own projects and travels. He completed a manuscript on ingredients that she was working on when she died, and had it published in 2016 as Ingredienti: Marcella’s Guide to the Market.
Victor is role-model and powerful influence of mine. I raise my glass to him for a life well-lived and for sharing so much of himself in pursuit of his and Marcella’s mission to promote a deeper of understanding of Italian food and wine. Their work changed the course of my life and of many others’ lives as well.
For more on Victor Hazan, read my long-form interview with him here.