When it comes to legendary cookbooks, Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cook Book is one worthy of talking about.
Not many people can claim to have changed the course of culinary history, but Marcella Hazan is one of them. She wrote the 1973 volume, The Classic Italian Cook Book, introducing American home cooks to authentic, northern-style Italian cooking. Now the filmmaker Peter Miller is embarking on a project to document Marcella’s life collecting stories and memories from her family, friends, and others influenced by her recipes.
Marcella was born in Italy but moved to New York City in the 1950s with her husband Victor. She worked in a lab, having earned doctorate degrees in natural science and biology. Before relocating to New York, Marcella had only ever boiled water in a beaker in the lab, but she found American food was not to her liking.
Drawing on her experience in Italy, Marcella launched a series of Italian cooking classes in her apartment, hosting a few students at a time in the tiny kitchen. When her husband Victor wrote to the New York Times asking to list the class in the paper, Craig Claiborne responded, came to lunch and became fast friends with Marcella.
Claiborne helped Marcella find a publisher for the now famous cookbook. Five years after the first recipe collection, she published More Classic Italian Cooking, and later combined both volumes into Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Marcella continued publishing recipes and hosted classes both in the United States and in Bologna, Italy until her death in 2013.
“What would Marcella do?” Peter Miller asks himself regularly. He and his wife have been cooking from her recipes since the 1980s. In the 1990s they decided to enroll in one of Marcella’s classes. They signed up for one in Connecticut—the suburbs were a more affordable option than traveling to Italy.
“We asked her for some cooking advice,” Miller says. He and his wife had struggled to cook one of Marcella’s sauce recipes, and so they asked her what her secret was to keep the particular sauce from breaking.
“It does not break,” Marcella responded, implying there was nothing wrong with the sauce, only the way it was being prepared.
A few years later, Peter came home from the Upper West Side green market with stinging nettles. He and his wife decided to cook Marcella’s stinging nettle ravioli, a process involving several hours to boil the nettles and roll out sheets of pasta. With the ravioli was cooking and a bottle of wine popped open, Peter’s wife asked him whether anyone had ever made a documentary about Marcella’s life. To their surprise, nobody had.
“My favorite films are the ones about creative, interesting people who had magnificent, complicated lives,” he said, explaining how Marcella is the ideal subject.
He first reached out to Marcella’s son, Giuliano, and then to Marcella’s husband, Victor. Both were enthusiastic about making a film about Marcella’s life. During their initial conversation, Victor mentioned he planned to stop in New York on his way to Italy. Peter saw an opportunity. “I had no idea how I was going to pay for this film, but I knew if it was a possibility I had to film with Victor.”
Victor had always been intertwined with Marcella’s life and her writing, but he also wrote the book, Italian Wine, a detailed and respected volume.
In that first session with Victor, Peter filmed for more than three hours. Since then, he’s been listening to Maracella’s story through interviews with people whose life she impacted, often while they cook her recipes. Peter got the idea to film the interview subjects cooking after Victor cooked a mock clam sauce on camera. The recipe was one that Marcella and he often ate when they first arrived in New York City. While he cooked, Victor recalled his memories of Marcella.
“I realized that what Marcella is about is not restaurant cooking, it’s not about fancy cooking techniques. Marcella is about preparing meals at home.”
This past spring, Peter held a Kickstarter to help fund filming. The successful campaign raised about $40,000 that he is using to finish filming interviews. For instance, he shot one segment with Rancho Gordo founder Steve Sando—the bean distributor with a cult following.
Some years ago, Marcella sent in an order for beans. Steve recognized her name and started chatting with her over the internet. Marcella described a bean she had eaten in her home region of Italy and wondered if Steve had ever come across something similar. The conversation led Steve to source beans from Italy. He eventually found a variety similar to the bean Marcella described and now Rancho Gordo markets the Marcella, a flavorful, white bean. The Kickstarter funding allowed Peter to visit California and film Steve cooking the beans while telling the story of the Marcella bean.
“The through line is Marcella’s life. It’s a biography of a long, creative, fascinating life. And so much of her biography is interesting in ways I didn’t expect,” Peter explains.
Peter still needs some funding to complete the project. While the filming has been paid for, funding is required for editing and licensing fees for archival footage, photographs, and music. He’s confident he’ll be able to raise the last of the funds, although he’s always looking for little help. Peter hopes to have a fully edited film early next fall.
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. He is a writer, editor, and graphic designer living in Brooklyn. Connect with him at IanMacAllen.com or on Twitter @IanMacAllen.