Sunday, August 22, 2010

Food Memoirs: "Amarcord: Marcella Remembers"

Passion isn't a characteristic of Marcella Hazan's memoir Amarcord: Marcella Remembers. She mentions that at the age of 84, memories are fluid, sweeping over time and space in no particular order. (Despite this, the book seems well organized and not especially jumpy.) Maybe age also made her somewhat detached and dispassionate about some of her experiences.

Politics is also not of much interest to Hazan. Her description of her family fleeing from their native farm and suffering in World War II completely avoided any statement of which side they were on (so I assume they supported the Italian Fascists). After the war, she was threatened by returning partisans, but avoided punishment. She seemed very distant from all this, as she did when describing her university studies of science and her early life as a teacher.

Hazan's descriptions of her husband seem pale and though she says he was a wonderful person, the reader isn't given a lot of specifics. He was a Sephardic Jew whose parents had immigrated to Italy and then fled to America in 1939, which could be interesting but is never elaborated. His parents didn't accept her, and maybe there was little contact -- but they are basically not characterized in the book. Her husband had lost many family members in the Holocaust -- but this is mentioned as a sort of aside, in explaining why he didn't want to spend time in Germany.

In the introduction, Hazan explained her title Amarcord, which means "I remember" in the dialect of Romagna, as a sort of homage to Fellini's film. She's from the same area of Italy, and her cooking school specialized in the dishes of this region. Clearly, she revised the American view of Italian cuisine, which derived from an immigrant community that had merged many of the regional traditions into an Italian-American style. She wrote:
When I first started to cook after arriving in New York, not even a year into married life, it was as though I were telling a story I had heard as a little girl in another land. To judge how closely my tale corresponded to the original, I had nothing but my memory and my cookbook. I was not acquainted with any other recently arrived Italians.... The so-called Italian food I found in New York at that time -- spaghetti and meatballs; machine-made ravioli with pungent, dark tomato sauce; manicotti; lobster fra diavolo; veal parmesan or alla francese -- resembled only occasionally in name, but never in appearance, taste, or intentions, what I had known at home. (p. 103)
What for her was "normal food" was extremely exotic in 1975 in New York, but she explains how she created Italian cooking classes and later cook books that enabled a new American consciousness of regional Italian food.

Over time, she describes how, in partnership with her husband, she increased her visibility to Americans and thus contributed to a trend of growing interest in authentic cuisines. As they expanded their teaching into schools for Americans held in Bologna and later Venice, she provides an interesting account of her experiences and of her many famous students. Interestingly, she describes how her own interests include a love of Asian foods as well as the cuisine of her native region.

For me, this book was not nearly as enjoyable as Julia Child's book My Life in France, though both of them had the perspective of a person who has outlived many of her contemporaries and feels free to publish critical views of many of her acquaintances. Although I enjoyed her memories, and developed respect for her accomplishments, of which my knowledge was previously vague, I found her lacking in attachment to many things. I liked the book, but it just didn't have the depth or passion to make me really love it.

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