Tomato Sauce with Butter: Thinking About Marcella Hazan, My Nonna in Spirit

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Marcella’s Tomato Sauce (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

My little brother took his first breath on a cold day in February, when doctors still made house visits and new mothers still spent days in the hospital. And that was good, as far as I was concerned, for during those 4 or 5 days that my mother lay exhausted in the maternity ward, I learned what Italian food could be.

The wife of my father’s boss invited him and we two other children, of whom I was the unwilling oldest, to dinner. And what a revelation to me that dinner was! With only five years of life under my belt – filled with generic meals of creamed tuna on rice, creamed hamburger on rice,  spaghetti tarted up with Campbell’s Cream of Tomato Soup, fried chicken, and red beans cooked with the remains of a real smoked ham – the memory of the night we ate at Mrs. Locke’s is one I still carry with me, tucked away in my brain’s “Special Memories” compartment. I know now, after deep immersion into the world of books on Italian cooking and life, that Mrs. Locke adhered to the “red sauce” school of Italian cooking, so pervasive at the time. But still. For a child hungering for the larger world, the pasta I ate that night, and the garlic bread – a bastardized version of bruschetta – has stayed with me, sustained me, since that cold February night, sitting in my father’s 1949 Pontiac, the Indian hood ornament flashing orange in all the oncoming headlights.

I thought about all this when I learned of Marcella Hazan’s recent passing from earthly life.

The minute I read that the woman who breathed life into my kitchen, who turned me from a recipe follower into a real cook, that this soul with the uncanny ability to graft culinary confidence onto rank beginners would never write another cookbook, well, I couldn’t help but think of the first time I ever cooked from one of her books. [Note: There may be another, posthumous book, Ingredienti, in 2014.]

At the time, I lived in El Zamorano, Honduras, an isolated farm-school called Escuela Agricola Panamericana, founded by United Fruit Company (think Chiquita Bananas) about 25 miles from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. A true hands-on teaching laboratory, at the school students attended classes in the morning, and in the afternoon worked on the various real-life agricultural projects going on: dairy, cheese-making, hog butchering, vegetable cropping, etc. If the pigs felt stress, and the students did not butcher them properly, the taste of the pork reflected the errors, the flavor reminiscent of something more at home in a mold-encrusted jar than in pork chops, the only time in my life when I cooked with and ate truly farm-fresh ingredients.

It just so happened that a Guatemalan friend of ours flew to Miami for some meetings one weekend. Before he left, I begged Eduardo to buy me a copy of Marcella’s first cookbook, the one that Craig Claiborne threw his weight behind: The Classic Italian Cookbook.

And Eduardo did not fail me. When he handed the book to me, I clutched it as if it were a treasure chest of gold. For it was, in those days when new books only arrived via the banana boats that put into port in La Ceiba.

Instead of her simple Tomato Sauce (with two pounds of chopped tomatoes, half an onion, salt, and 5 T. of butter), I chose to make … Sliced Pasta Roll with Spinach and Ham Filling. And, I couldn’t believe it, for I’d NEVER attempted hand-rolled pasta before in my entire life, it turned out perfectly.  I stood in  that tiny kitchen, the slippery red terra cotta tiles catching every drip of water, every particle of flour, as I sweated in the heat and tied the twine and lowered the raw pasta into the hot water, beseeching the gods of the kitchen to have mercy on me if the experiment failed. What would I feed my family  in the face of such an epic failure? I did not know.  As I’ve told people, when I bring up that moment in apprenticeship as a cook, I was so proud of myself, but you know, I would not have failed. Why? Because Marcella was the caring mother-in-law, the nonna, the female essence, the one who tenderly took a young woman’s hand and guided her into the inner sanctum, the sacred space where cooks dwell, the spirits who mold and meld the products of the earth into life-giving joy.

© 2013 C. Bertelsen, including all photographs.

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