Amarcord: Marcella Remembers

We all start somewhere. Marcella Hazan?s first dish was a pulp of mulberry leaves boiled with polenta to feed a piglet during wartime (the better to eat the beast later). But cooking would come to her, like words come to a child, without formal training, by osmosis from her family and from the peckish urgings of her husband. Her cookbooks on classic Italian food would become, rightly, as revered as Ferraris and Sophia Loren. That, however, is down the road in Amarcord, so first things first. We learn in the early, cradle-song pages of this memoir that Hazan was born on Italy?s northern Adriatic coast, in a port town of convivial pandemonium. Lovingly, immaculately drawn, it was a “sweet, simple village,” and Hazan?s life was a sweet, little chestnut (despite a broken arm that turned gangrenous, with crippling results), carefree and not a moment toiling in the kitchen. Then came war. Food, by default, became a preoccupation. Hazan paid attention at the stove as her elders worked their wizardry with scant means. She learned to appreciate salt, beans, and a dark humor. With peacetime, Victor came into her life: a bohemian with a growling stomach and a knack, as her collaborator, for turning her Italian into splendid English. It is a pleasure to read a memoir in which life is a blessing (lots of fighting, too, but an elemental affection) complete with fractious in-laws, a bundle of joy –“It was he now, instead of Victor, who interrupted my sleep” — the circumstantial birth of her cooking classes, and, oh boy, the food. As a teacher, she is a tough-as-nails taskmaster; as an associate, she is disarmingly frank: here, both Alan Davidson and Judith Jones get a sleeve across the windpipe. If the latter part of the book trails a bit — a few too many celebrity shoulders rubbed at meals to die for — think of it as her just desserts.