Just over half a lifetime ago, I started my first real job at an academic publishers’ office in Manhattan. My boss, Liz, was a brilliant editor, and one thing we shared was a love of food. (I expressed mine by spending the non-rent half of my paycheck eating out by myself, as I had not yet learned to cook.) My first Christmas at the Press, Liz gave me a set of wine glasses, which got good use as I grappled with the perspective-wrenching conundrums of race, ethnicity, gender, and class which our authors presented to us daily in manuscript form. Liz, Irish-Italian, 10 years older than I, had wanted to be a Black Panther when she was young. I, American-born Chinese and educated mostly in piano, had wanted to be a cucumber. There was much talk of marginalization, but the fact is we were both pure New Yorkers – just of different sorts.
My second Christmas at the Press, I carefully wrapped a gift too. I gave Liz the new edition of the New York City Zagat dining guide – I knew she’d use it, even if only when taking authors out to lunch. Liz, for her part, handed me a heavy tome wrapped in thick gilt paper. I picked it apart (having been raised to save the paper) to find Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Liz had enclosed a note. From “my” people, it read, to “yours”. Most of Liz’s utterances arrived with a broad wink at the folly of racial stereotyping, and I spent a good deal of my first years with her laughing at jokes I didn’t quite understand. But, in the end, the laughing was the point.
I took Liz’s gift very seriously. That winter, I started cooking my way through Essentials – and not systematically. It wasn’t like Julie & Julia. I started with the pastas, which were easy. Then I progressed to the fish and meats. I bought a yard-long dowel nearly the width of my wrist to roll my own pasta dough, though I never had much success. I bought the best olive oil I could find, though I couldn’t afford it.
Every evening I came home to my one-bedroom apartment and nibbled on some good olives and a baguette while deciding what recipe to attempt. Then I poured myself a little icy glass of vermouth (another habit picked up from Liz) and set to work. Often, as I wrinkled my forehead over Hazan’s pronouncements (“Do not be alarmed by the amount of garlic this recipe requires.” “No less than 3 hours is necessary, more is better.”), Manhattan’s elegant heure bleue slipped by unnoticed. I would sit down to eat at my shabby table for one after nightfall, drowning my senses in my plate of pasta. Only afterward would I pause to wonder what I had missed – the voices, the sunset, the stilettoed shadows, the music just outside the window.
Like so much in life, my adventures with Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking were a blend of earnestness and failure, yet the effort was suffused with joy. The bargain I made on those evenings – the city’s bustling life, traded like a sack of coins for a solitary education of the senses – may or may not have proven to be the right one in the end.
A decade later, I left publishing, married and moved to the country. Publishing itself contracted into strange new forms, without the high polish and glamor public intellectuals had formerly commanded. Liz? Dead these many years, struck down at the height of her powers by ovarian cancer. And now Marcella Hazan, too, has left these earthly premises.
No one can deny that a single life, by any measure, will always be too short. But how can one even measure the impact of a single act undertaken in that life? Liz, Marcella, and that book left indelible grooves in the record of my twenties. As time carves the sides of the riverbed, so this act – the gift of a book, with a wink and a smile – subtly shaped the course of the life that followed – and I am only one. It boggles the mind to think of the hundreds, the thousands whose stories were shaped in such a way, by such an act.
My point is that to say goodbye to Marcella Hazan is only to mark a waypoint in her life. Each time the ice clinks in the vermouth glass, each time the nutmeg makes a pass over the grater – just once – to lend its virtue to the bolognese, who can say the past is gone forever? For then, I know, my friends are with me once again, in possibly the only way that matters.