Human Skulls, Misogynists, and Disability: On the Life of Marcella Hazan and Her Return to Culinary Simplicity
When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Roast Chicken
Marcella Hazan was born into what should have been an uneventful provincial existence in a fishing town on the northern shores of the Adriatic Sea. From childhood on, however, she faced and overcame events charged with pain, danger, and discontent. The challenges were strong, but Marcella was stronger. The resolve that she was able to command powered her, later in life, to cooking stardom, when she put Italian food in America’s kitchens. Her books, and her classes, in America and abroad, made her an icon to home cooks and chefs.
Bent over her desk, Marcella wrote into a legal-size notebook, setting down directions to, and descriptions of, her recipes. She wrote in a tight, rounded hand, quickly, without hesitation. Corrections were rare.
What was also rare, for an Italian, is that she wrote left-handed. She had been right-handed until the age of seven, when she fell while playing on the beach, breaking her right arm. The arm was put into a cast so tight that gangrene developed, putting it, and life, at risk.
Her parents rushed Marcella to Bologna, where the internationally celebrated orthopedic surgeon Dr. Vittorio Putti operated on her twice. He saved the arm. But an unsuccessful third surgery, performed by his assistant, left Marcella’s hand contracted into a claw that, for the rest of her life, hung on a deformed arm.She connected with the taste memories of the foods of her youth, with the farmhouse meals of the war years, with her mother’s simple, everyday cooking.
Marcella did not let her disfigurement become a distraction. She taught herself to write a fluid and clear hand with her left. When she was home again, in the beach and fishing town that was her birthplace, she caught up with school, making up lost years. Out of school, she was an active member of la comitiva, a sporting band of her contemporaries. They swam out together to the deep-sea diving platform, knocked the ball around on the beach, and on weekends, mounted their bicycles to take on the big sport of that time, pedaling up and down hills, exploring distant towns.
During the last year of the Second World War, when the Nazis occupied Italy, Marcella was hauled into court on suspicion of murdering a mustached German officer. If guilty, she would have been executed.
The family was living on a large farm, whose management her father had taken over when war approached. The Germans had established their high command down the road. Their patrols were always on the move, and so were the bombs that Allied planes dropped on them. When Marcella went off to school in the morning, there was no certainty that she would get back.
One of the courses she took at the lyceum—the preparatory school she attended to ready herself for university—was on human anatomy. Her professor lent her a skeleton, which she was to use to study the bones of the body for her final exam. It was a complete skeleton, except for the part with the most intricate bone structure, the skull. “How do I get a skull?” she asked. “At the cemetery,” she was told. “Cadavers are always coming in.”
Marcella brought home a skull, courtesy of an accommodating gravedigger. She proceeded to boil it, as the professor had instructed, to remove the hair. “I got every hair out,” she wrote to her boyfriend in the army, “except for a little shadow under the nose that looks like a mustache.”The challenges were strong, but Marcella was stronger. The resolve that she was able to command powered her, later in life, to cooking stardom, when she put Italian food in America’s kitchens.
Censors intercepted the letter, and Marcella was brought before a local judge. “Why did you kill this man?” he asked. “I didn’t kill anyone,” Marcella replied. “I am studying for an anatomy exam. I don’t know whose skull that is. The gravedigger at the cemetery gave it to me. Send for him, he’ll tell you.” After the gravedigger’s testimony had been heard, the judge spoke to Marcella. “Signorina,” he said, “we are too busy here with serious matters to spend time on such foolishness. Take your skull, go home, and don’t let us see you again.”
Anatomy became one of Marcella’s strongest subjects. Decades later, in her cooking classes, when she was teaching cuts of meat, her students were the beneficiaries of her hard-won mastery.
In Venice you can board a train that will get you to Padua in little more than thirty minutes. Acting on this fact, Marcella’s parents made what could have become a calamitous decision. They enrolled her in the University of Padua, where her academic career nearly came to an early close.
The universities closest to Cesenatico, Marcella’s hometown, are those of Bologna and Ferrara. They don’t have dorms. Students look for the lodgings they can best afford. Marcella’s father, who had not worked since the war, could ill afford even the most modest accommodations. But Marcella’s aunt Margherita, also known as Zia Margot, lived with her prosperous husband in a large house near the train station in Venice. If Marcella stayed there, she would have an easy commute to the University of Padua. That is what the family agreed she would do.
At Padua, Marcella, matriculated in natural sciences, unaware that the dean, Professor D’Ancona, was a venomous misogynist. Final exams in Italian universities are usually taken orally. This gave the professor the opportunity to tyrannize a beautiful female student. The first time Marcella took the zoology exam, necessary to qualify for the degree she sought, he flunked her. She studied and took it again. He flunked her again. She was determined to study the zoology curriculum so thoroughly that he couldn’t possibly flunk her again. He did, for the third time, on a technicality.
Marcella realized that D’Ancona would never let her graduate from Padua. When another professor received an appointment to be chair of paleontology at the University of Ferrara, she asked him, were she to seek a transfer, if he would sponsor the request. He said yes, he would.
The transfer, though, had to be approved by the dean, Professor D’Ancona. It was a formality, because approval was the courteous response to a colleague’s request. “Okay, va bene,” D’Ancona said, “you can go, but only after taking the zoology exam again.”
Marcella studied once more, giving the exam before D’Ancona, and a faculty committee. She had by then memorized thousands of Latin names and mastered the subject too well to fail. She passed, but D’Ancona spitefully gave her the lowest passing grade he could. In parting, he asked her, “How did you get Professor Leonardi to take you to Ferrara? Does he have a crush on you?”
At Ferrara, Marcella earned two doctoral degrees, as they are known in Italy. One in natural sciences, then a second in biology.
When Marcella and I married, she had begun to teach science and mathematics at a middle school close to home. Her starting salary was very low. I was an American citizen, living in Italy without a work permit and no established aptitudes. We decided we should move to New York, where I could go to work in my father’s fur business.
My parents had left Italy before the war, to escape the fate hanging over Jews. During the war, those in the family who had chosen to stay behind vanished in the Holocaust. My parents were bitter that I had married a Catholic. During the first years of our marriage, there was no contact between them and Marcella.
I had been away from the United States for years and had no friends. Marcella was starting a marriage in an alien land, without any knowledge of its customs and language. Most daunting of all, she had never cooked, and knew nothing about cooking. But she knew that there is nothing as vital to an Italian marriage as carefully prepared and flavorful food.
There was no one for her to lean on for advice. Phoning home, in those days of erratic and costly connections, would have been an extravagant option that we could not afford.
I had an old cookbook whose recipes had been written for Italian cooks living in Rome in the early part of the twentieth century. Marcella looked through it, but she mostly looked into herself. She connected with the taste memories of the foods of her youth, with the farmhouse meals of the war years, with her mother’s simple, everyday cooking. She connected with the determination to prevail that had served her well throughout her life. She stood alone in her New York kitchen, where she recast the cuisines of the land of her birth.
The food editor of The New York Times, Craig Claiborne, heard about her cooking and came to lunch, to see for himself. He wrote a piece for the paper that described the dishes Marcella was cooking. An American publisher, Peter Mollman, read the story while he was in Verona supervising a project that had been assigned to an Italian color printer. He later recalled thinking, “This is food that we are eating here every day. Why can’t we have a cookbook in America that teaches us how to make it?” Back home, he asked Marcella to put her dishes into recipes that others could follow. She did. The result is within these pages.
Many of the dishes you might make now from Marcella’s work, such as a three-ingredient tomato sauce, a chicken with just two lemons, a soup with but a ladleful of cannellini, a pork butt braised solely in milk, a bluefish baked with garlic and potatoes, a pasta with a fistful of small scallops, Bolognese sauce, are drawn from the everyday meals Marcella cooked for her family.
Marcella had only one good hand, but she used it with firm control, cooking carefully, with the simplicity and clarity that, to pure deliciousness, are essential.
Roast Chicken With Lemons
for 4 servings
If this were a still life its title could be “Chicken with Two Lemons.” That is all that there is in it. No fat to cook with, no basting to do, no stuffing to prepare, no condiments except for salt and pepper. After you put the chicken in the oven you turn it just once. The bird, its two lemons, and the oven do all the rest. Again and again, through the years, I meet people who come up to me to say, “I have made your chicken with two lemons and it is the most amazingly simple recipe, the juiciest, best-tasting chicken I have ever had.” And you know, it is perfectly true.
A 3-to 4-pound chicken
Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill
2 rather small lemons
1. Preheat oven to 350°.
2. Wash the chicken thoroughly in cold water, both inside and out. Remove all the bits of fat hanging loose. Let the bird sit for about 10 minutes on a slightly tilted plate to let all the water drain out of it. Pat it thoroughly dry all over with cloth or paper towels.
3. Sprinkle a generous amount of salt and black pepper on the chicken, rubbing it with your fingers over all its body and into its cavity.
4. Wash the lemons in cold water and dry them with a towel. Soften each lemon by placing it on a counter and rolling it back and forth as you put firm downward pressure on it with the palm of your hand. Puncture the lemons in at least 20 places each, using a sturdy round toothpick, a trussing needle, a sharp-pointed fork, or similar implement.
5. Place both lemons in the bird’s cavity. Close up the opening with toothpicks or with trussing needle and string. Close it well, but don’t make an absolutely airtight job of it because the chicken may burst. Run kitchen string from one leg to the other, tying it at both knuckle ends. Leave the legs in their natural position without pulling them tight. If the skin is unbroken, the chicken will puff up as it cooks, and the string serves only to keep the thighs from spreading apart and splitting the skin.
6. Put the chicken into a roasting pan, breast facing down. Do not add cooking fat of any kind. This bird is self-basting, so you need not fear it will stick to the pan. Place it in the upper third of the preheated oven. After 30 minutes, turn the chicken over to have the breast face up. When turning it, try not to puncture the skin. If kept intact, the chicken will swell like a balloon, which makes for an arresting presentation at the table later. Do not worry too much about it, however, because even if it fails to swell, the flavor will not be affected.
7. Cook for another 30 to 35 minutes, then turn the oven thermostat up to 400°, and cook for an additional 20 minutes. Calculate between 20 and 25 minutes’ total cooking time for each pound. There is no need to turn the chicken again.
8. Whether your bird has puffed up or not, bring it to the table whole and leave the lemons inside until it is carved and opened. The juices that run out are perfectly delicious. Be sure to spoon them over the chicken slices. The lemons will have shriveled up, but they still contain some juice; do not squeeze them, they may squirt.
Ahead-of-time note: If you want to eat it while it is warm, plan to have it the moment it comes out of the oven. If there are leftovers, they will be very tasty cold, kept moist with some of the cooking juices and eaten not straight out of the refrigerator, but at room temperature.
From Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking: 30th Anniversary Edition by Marcella Hazan. Copyright © 1992 by Marcella Hazan. Foreword copyright © 2022 by Victor Hazan. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.