Top positive review
Victor Hazan revealed as key figure in culinary psychodrama.
on December 26, 1997
Marcella fans the world over have almost certainly already added this new book to their kitchen bookshelf with the other oil and tomato sauce-splattered volumes from the deliciously intolerant queen of the Italian kitchen. Fame and glory have clearly had an effect on Marcella. Scorn for food fads, French cooking, vegetarians, or even people vaguely concerned about eating too much salt, have always made her the most entertaining and politically incorrect food writer in the world. But here she goes even further. Marcella Cucina reveals the Marcella id in all its glory and introduces the previously shadowy figure of her husband Victor as a key figure in an Italian culinary psychodrama. The book begins in the usual way with a little essay about the basic ingredients of Italian cooking which is full of the trademark Marcella irritation with ignorant oafs and their idiotic ideas. Take this delightful running kick aimed squarely at anti-butter health nuts, "I am dismayed by the misguided attitude of those who champion olive oil over butter as though it were a cause. How do they make the sauces for their homemade pasta, I'd like to know, or the bases for most risottos? How indeed. Or this head butt to American and English bread eaters "(In America and England)...one slathers it with butter or, in the current lamentable fashion, dunks it in olive oil...We would find it grotesque to waste good olive oil by pouring it into saucers for dipping bread". You go girl! Marcella Cucina contains more recipes in the style of all her previous books. This is one of the wonderful things about the world of Marcella Hazan - its constancy. She is, by her own admission, not interested in "fusion of cross-cultural culinary hybrids" but rather in communicating a clear sense of place. Hers is regional cooking by definition and as such there are few surprises. However, I am glad to see some more rabbit dishes. There is only one other rabbit recipe in any of her books (stewed rabbit with white wine from her first book) and, the few times I have tried it, it was uncharacteristically mediocre. There is an amazing selection of salads and soups here and most of them - like the swiss chard, cannellini bean and barley soup that is simmering as I write - sound wonderful. But what of Victor "for and because of" whom these recipes were created? He crops up unexpectedly all over the place as a dark Svengali figure; the demiurge behind the Marcella experience. Marcella cucina but Victor wears the pants. Readers of her previous books will be familiar with the story of how Marcella learned to cook. A young wife in a foreign city with an important husband out at work all day on lofty missions, she didn't know how to cook and felt inadequate. Not that she hadn't been a career woman mind you, but she had given all that up to please Victor. But if she couldn't cook, how was she going to keep her man happy? Why, by spending countless hours in the kitchen trying to recreate the tastes of her childhood. This oft-told story has always seemed charming in a retro kind of way, but here it is expanded and begins to take on darker overtones: "After (Victor) left in the morning, the days were long and lonely and often I was desperate". She tells us how she planned and cooked a complete Italian meal every day to please Victor when he returned from work. "I described how I made each dish and my husband complimented me on the ones that were successful and, happily less often, consoled me when they were not, suggesting how they might be improved." Victor is a formidable taskmaster who knows how to treat a woman. A recipe for Tuscan beans is attributed to a former housekeeper of his who clearly enjoyed his dominant ways. Marcella tells us that when Victor asked the submissive servant to clean his apartment and cook for him "her face shone as though she had just been awakened from a bad dream by the good prince". But clearly Marcella herself is not always so charmed by his peremptory arrogance. The same recipe opens with the following exchange between Marcella and Victor: ""What do you want to eat today?" I ask my husband. It seems to me a very sweet, solicitous question for a wife to pose, but it never fails to irritate Victor. "I can't think about it now," he usually snaps." Poor Marcella.