Friday, October 18, 2013

Marcella Hazan and Penelope Casas

A number of memorials to Marcella Hazan have appeared since the announcement of her passing recently, and while this is yet one more, I want to also acknowledge the passing of another culinary icon, Penelope Casas, who passed away on the 11th of August.  For those of you who cook, you know what I mean when I say that you feel you know the author of a cookbook you use a lot even if you've never met that person -- in my house, my husband and I refer to these authors on a first name basis, as if we really do know them.  The names Marcella and Penelope are among these because we have made so very many of their recipes.  We knew Marcella first, and our paperback edition of her first book, The Classic Italian Cookbook (1973, Ballantine), is so tattered and the pages are so brittle that it is barely holding together.  We only have one other Marcella cookbook, The Essentials of Italian Cooking (Knopf, 1994), even though she has a number of others.  I like to note, as I did in my book on Venice, the Veneto, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, that there is a recipe in Essentials for a risotto with celery that may sound dull but is absolutely delicious and full of flavor.  Less known perhaps is her husband Victor's book on Italian Wine (pictured above; Knopf, 1982), which I think is still an excellent book even if some of the information is outdated.  I love that he dedicated the book to Marcella, "insostituibile e carissima compagna"(irreplacable and dear companion).

Everything I've read over the last few weeks about Marcella has focused on her career as a cookbook author and cooking instructor.  I admire her for both of these talents, but the singular point I am making here about her is that she was also a culinary authority for travelers: I learned so much from her books about what to expect at restaurants and trattorie in Italy, about the courses served, about ingredients, and most importantly about the differences in the cuisines in each region in Italy.  As she noted, "Italian cooking" is an expression that is rarely used by Italians. "The cooking of Venice, for example, is so distant from that of Naples, although they are both Italian cities specializing in seafood, that not a single authentic dish from the one is to be found on the other's table.  There are unbridgeable differences between Bologna and Florence, each the capital of its own region, yet only sixty miles apart."  She also observed that  "The unique features of each region and of the individual towns and cites within it can still be easily observed when one travels through Italy today.  These are living differences that appear in the physical cast of the people, in their temperament, in their spoken language, and, most clearly, in their cooking."   

I have long recommended to travelers that they include cookbooks in their trip planning reading, even if they are not cooks and have no intention of making a single recipe (though this would, I think, be a shame because cooking some of the dishes unique to the place you're going is a great way to  immerse yourself in the destination).  I feel you cannot separate the history of food from the history of a city or country, and really great cookbooks -- the kind with both authentic, tried-and-true recipes and detailed commentary on food traditions and unique ingredients -- are just as essential to travel as guidebooks.  I read them like novels, and often the authors share the names of their favorite markets, shops, and restaurants.
Though I have made a great number of Marcella's recipes, I have made even more of Penelope's.  The Foods & Wines of Spain (Knopf, 1982) remains an essential book, and Craig Claiborne referred to it as "the definitive book on Spanish cooking" at the time of its publication.  I refer travelers to Spain to this book's Preface, which includes entries on 'What is Spanish cuisine?,' 'Spanish Life-Style,' and 'Regional Cooking.' 

I also cook from Delicioso! and Tapas, and have put together some great feasts for friends with recipes from these books (also published by Knopf).  I was pleased to feature three articles by Penelope in my book on Northern Spain, and I received a very nice note from her when it was published in 2003.  But best for travelers is her book Discovering Spain: An Uncommon Guide, pictured to the right (also published by Knopf), which is out of print but I recommend it if you can find a copy as a great many of her recommendations are still accurate and worthwhile.

Farewell to Marcella and Penelope, who will live on in their many excellent books.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for another great post here at The Collected Traveler. All the books you mention are unknown to me, but being a lover of cooking books, I now have put them on my list of btb (books to buy)

    Some years ago my husband and I were heading for POland, Krakow for the first time. Before going I read Old Polish Traditions in the Kitchen, an old cookbook which I had got as a gift from a short time penpal in 1981. What a treasure. As a guide to teach us about Polish food, yes, but also as a guide to a country completely new to us.

    I was in Ethiopia last week, on the purpose of collecting food tales. I have found no book about this. May be I should write one :-) So far all I have written is a blog post about the making of injera, but it is a start, isn´t it?