It’s funny how a little thing like lunch can be a life changer.
For Marcella Hazan, it was when Craig Claiborne of the NY Times came to lunch in 1970….and shortly thereafter, celebrities, writers, chefs and other-important-people-who-can-make-your-career started coming to Marcella’s classes to learn about authentic Italian cooking. Six best-selling books, Lifetime Achievement awards and changing the way Americans cook, think, enjoy Italian food…that’s Marcella.
My life changing lunch was last week.
It was a bit unexpected – I’ve been friends with Lael and Guiliano Hazan (Marcella’s son) for the past couple of years but never imagined that I’d be meeting Marcella. And it wasn’t until Pamela Sheldon Johns swung by the area on book tour that I had that chance. A few emails, text messages and phone calls with Pamela and it was decided that lunch at the Ritz Carlton in Sarasota was the plan, and that Marcella would be joining us.
I really didn’t know what to expect, I had heard Marcella was intense and intimidating, but I would have expected nothing less from the “doyenne of Italian cooking in America“…a fervent force of nature, indeed!
Lunch was pleasant, I was on my best behavior and didn’t slurp my Pork Belly Ramen Noodles like I normally would, for fear that a long slingy noodle would slurp-lash rich broth at my dining companions. Conversation flitted between Pamela’s cooking school in Italy to olive oil to cookbooks to book tour to travel.
No, wait. Pamela and I flitted. Marcella listened, at moments her eyes would gaze away and just when I thought we had bored her to tears, she’d smile and cut our sing-song fluttery conversation with her wisdom, bluntness and staunchy opinions.
And that was our lunch.
But that wasn’t THE LUNCH that I was referring to.
As we were about to leave the Ritz, Marcella wanted to know when I was going to come to her house to cook Chinese food. She has a fondness for Chinese food that has gone unfulfilled here in Sarasota (our Chinese-American restaurants here in town have a bad habit of drowning every dish in the same nasty, goopy brown sauce.) I recalled reading that a Chinese cooking class is what started it all for her in 1969.
Phone numbers were exchanged.
The next day, Marcella called, “Hello, this is Marcella. We met yesterday. Do you remember me? When are you coming over?”
Hmm…Marcella…marcella…name sounds familiar…OF COURSE I REMEMBER!
Lunch at Marcella and Victor’s home was scheduled and I decided to make My Mother’s Famous Chinese Crispy Egg Rolls and Chinese Sausage Fried Rice, both from my book and both are dishes that I could make on the fly without a recipe. Important, because while I couldn’t pretend that cooking for culinary royalty was a normal thing in my daily routine, at least I could stack the odds in my favor that the food would turn out good.
Their condo, overlooking the happy blue sea of Gulf, is elegantly decorated with treasures from around the world. A richly colored, cone-shaped lantern, as large as a satellite dish, hangs mightily at the center of the living room.
“It’s Venetian,” Victor says, “have you ever been to Venice?”
I love Victor. He’s quick, sharp, witty and still a ladies man. He’s dressed in slacks, button down shirt, both perfectly pressed, trimmed goatee and his short, grey hair styled in that messy-tousled way.
He’s still sexy at 81.
Marcella is 87 years old (her birthday was last week) and health problems have taken their toll on her body. I can imagine what she was like in her energetic younger years.
But these days, Marcella is comfortable at her dining room table, situated between the kitchen and the view of the Gulf’s peaceful blue.
She sits within fingertips reach of the kitchen, a cigarette in hand, only getting up and shuffling to the walk-in closet converted to a pantry and storage to retrieve items that I needed to cook with.
She senses that I’m reluctant to ask for too much, the shuffling is labored and the cigarette has to be put down, “Tell me what you need. I have many things, just ask. The right tool always makes it easier.”
I break out of my normal blogger routine of capturing everything on camera and film, my friend Shelisa helps me snap a few photos while being respectful of the Hazan’s privacy. Don’t get me wrong, it was one of the hardest things to do. Given my way, I would have mounted five cameras to the ceiling to record it all, especially if I happened to do something silly…like burn down their kitchen.
They live in a strict condo community. No bbq grills, no gas flames. I knew they had an electric stove, so I brought my own portable butane powered gas stove and wok. Marcella looks at me, smiles wickedly and says, “oh, that’s illegal here.” (but we used it anyways….shhhh!)
Shelisa and I stood a couple of feet from Marcella’s seat at the dining room and we proceeded to roll a couple dozen egg rolls. Then Marcella wanted to learn and so we brought out a wooden TV tray to her and she put down her cigarette.
The secret to rolling a good egg roll is to keep it tight and even, something that takes a little practice, even for Marcella. The first couple didn’t turn out so good, and I froze for split sec…how do I tell culinary royalty that her egg roll isn’t quite right? Do I quickly re-roll under the table without her seeing? Do I gently scold like my mama does to me!? What if she really knows how to roll and she’s just testing me?
“Marcella, we have to roll tighter, like a cigarette. Like this…”
And boom. She understood.
We rolled enough for lunch and enough to store a batch in the freezer for another time.
There were many things that I learned once the four of us sat down for our lunch of Egg Rolls and Fried Rice. Like most Italians, lunch is Marcella and Victor’s main meal of the day, the most important one, so Victor opened a bottle of wine, the table was set and we sat and dined.
I had forgotten to bring a bottle of Chinese Black Vinegar for the egg rolls. And if you didn’t know how to eat an egg roll properly, let me tell you. You first take a little bite on one of the egg roll. Holding the egg roll upright, spoon just a few drops of Chinese Black Vinegar down into the egg roll, so that it dribbles all the way down on the inside of the roll. That deep, musky tang of the vinegar adds another flavor dimension.
But if you don’t have Chinese Black Vinegar, cheap balsamic vinegar will do. Notice I said “CHEAP” (Chinese Black Vinegar is $3 a bottle).
But how do I ask the Hazan’s if they have cheap balsamic?! So I just asked for balsamic.
Victor brought out a eeety beety tiny bottle of balsamic.
Marcella looks at the bottle, looks at me, then points to the bottle, “You know, this is $85 a bottle, aged 25 years.”
And then a little bickering began, with Marcella telling Victor in Italian something about 25 year old special balsamic, $85 a bottle, our American guests will use too much, they won’t appreciate! And then no more special balsamic for me!
Well, I don’t speak Italian, but that’s exactly what *I* would tell my husband! 😉 They bickered back and forth for a while, and I think Victor won, because the bottle stayed put on the table.
Very carefully, I opened the bottle…Marcella had her eye on me…I looked at the cork and declared, “oh, this balsamic vinegar won’t work well, it’s too thick and sweet!” and sent Victor off to find a more “tart and runny balsamic”…i.e. the CHEAP STUFF.
Among the lessons that I learned that afternoon:
- Real Italian sausage has no fennel, “Why all sausage have fennel? I don’t understand. Italian sausage just simple salt and pepper.”
- While we ended our meal with an espresso, Marcella ended hers with a glass of Gentleman Jack whiskey, “I cannot drink wine anymore, I have a reaction. So I drink whiskey.” And from Victor, I learned that a little sugar in the espresso brings out so much flavor.
- They love a big, thick rare steak. Massage the steak with salt and pepper, place on grill, and when you see 1/4″ of the side cooked and cook the other side 1/4″ inch. In separate frying pan, heat up olive oil, garlic, rosemary. When it’s very very hot, take the grilled steak and place in the olive oil pan. Let it sizzle just a bit, flip and do that a couple of times, but be careful, you’re just coating the steak, not cooking it further.
But the life changing moment for me was not about the food, it was a lesson on fondness.
Some days, my husband and I are so busy that we hardly even have a chance to meet eyes. Even when we’re not busy, our eyes are on our children.
That day, during every story that Victor told of Marcella, and Marcella told of Victor, their eyes would lock for a moment, they’d share a smirk-smile and it was evident that this was more than love. This was 55 years of fondness that they still have for each other.
I can’t quite explain it in words, but this is what growing old together, forever, in love means.
Victor sent me home with a package of Italian sausage, custom made for them by Paul Bertolli, meat, fat, salt, pepper and absolutely no fennel.
And a few nights later, we grilled the sausages and also made Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter that she’s famous for. What a fine meal it was!
The recipe for her tomato sauce is so simple – just 3 ingredients: butter, onion and tomatoes. Recipe for Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter