On the 30th anniversary of Marcella Hazan's iconic Italian cookbook Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Paul Greenberg talks with Hazan's husband Victor about why you should—and shouldn't—veganize recipes.
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Marcella Hazan
Credit: Getty Images/Courtesy Photo

When you've used a particular cookbook for a number of years, you develop a particular kind of one-way relationship with its author. So it is with me and the late Marcella Hazan. I've been cooking from her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking for nearly all of the 30 years of the book's existence.

"Yes, you were so right about that, Marcella," I've found myself saying as I've watched with relief as the milk finally sets around her slow-braised pork roast. "Are you sure, Marcella?" I've asked after I've parboiled the cauliflower and added not just a full portion of béchamel sauce but also nearly a cup of Parmesan to her sumptuous gratiné.

But the one time I actually did speak to Hazan for an article I wrote for The New York Times Magazine a decade or so ago, I was so tongue-tied that I never got to what I really wanted to talk about. Instead, we got hung up on the fact that Americans don't like the way Italians favor whole fish, with the head on, over fillets.

Since then, I've gone through many food phases. In 2016 I ate only fish for a year. In 2019 I went vegan. Now, partly for health reasons but also strongly for ecological reasons, I've settled into what I think will be my long-term pattern: climatarian. Mostly vegan, that is, with a few sustainable seafoods a few times a week.

And there are plenty of recipes in Hazan's Essentials that allow me to spend some time with her. Her emphasis on low-carbon sardines, anchovies, clams and mussels in her fish preparations is ecologically sound. Her vegetables and salads are elegant and filling.

And yet, when I think of Marcella's genius, the place my mind has always gone to has been her Bolognese. This fall as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Marcella's iconic book, I started thinking back to my own clumsy attempts at coaxing plant-based ingredients into something resembling Hazan's magical blending of meat and milk, wine and tomatoes.

So, I put this question bluntly to Victor Hazan, Marcella's husband and, more importantly in this context, her longtime collaborator, translator and guardian of her legacy. 

To begin with, I asked Victor if it would be permissible to make a few replacements.Could we try mushrooms, for example, instead of beef, a carbon savings of something like 24 kilos of CO2 emissions for every kilo of beef not eaten? Could we swap in a smooth Ligurian olive oil, which has about half the emissions of butter? Could oat milk take the place of milk from a cow? 

Victor Hazan: Paul, you can legitimately propose recipes devised to satisfy issues of sustainability, small carbon footprints and veganism. In my opinion, it is neither legitimate or useful to vandalize Marcella's classic recipes to do it. We can step away from the works of masters when they no longer speak to us. We don't need to score Mozart's "Clarinet Quintet in A" for banjo. Marcella's contribution to the food of her time is historic and pervasive. Through the tight focus of her genius, she synthesized a major part of her nation's culinary culture. She has changed the way people eat, shop, cook, think and talk about food. Even when they don't have her books, or recognize her name. A core of her recipes, including the Bolognese, and the transformative tomato, butter and onion sauce, are permanent cultural artifacts, and should be respected as such.

Paul Greenberg: But we do need to lower our carbon footprint when we eat, don't we? Food is one of the places where humans exert their most dangerous effects on the planet. Nearly every climate expert out there says that we need to trend toward more and more vegetarian and vegan modes of cooking. And, if we trend in that direction, isn't there the risk that Marcella's recipes will end up as museum pieces?

Hazan: I am not persuaded that a few individuals, moved by feelings of civic virtue, can—by replacing the meat in a Bolognese—improve the fate of the planet one jot. What they will have done is deprive themselves of the pleasure of a sublime culinary creation, and frayed a cultural link. This is a job for government. If government won't do it, rally, vote and change the government. Don't fret about recipes becoming museum pieces. If you appropriate a classic recipe that Marcella formulated, forcing it to accommodate planet-saving concepts, the recipe becomes defunct. Eventually, all food preferences change. They change successfully when that change is the result of consensus on taste, reached over time.  

Greenberg: Can you offer some suggestions to the carbon-conscious eater who still wants to cook from Marcella?

Hazan: Forgive me, Paul. Carbon-conscious eater sounds grotesque to me. I reject the tyranny of concepts in any expressive art, painting, performance or cooking. What matters is pleasure. Pleasure is the most sublime of heaven's gifts to humankind. Cooking communicates pleasure through taste. A concept brings no thrill to the palate.

Greenberg: Did you and Marcella ever speak about vegetarianism and veganism in an ecological context? If so, how did she view these eating patterns? As trends or as necessities?

Hazan: No. Marcella's mantra was "How does it taste?" Taste was her overriding objective, and she labored to develop techniques that would achieve it simply and efficiently. Moreover, you ought, for example, to eschew desserts, replacing them with fruits. Possibly not concentrating on apples, but on juicy, ripe, sugary fruits, like peaches, mangoes, pineapple, figs, persimmons.

Greenberg: Michael Pollan famously advised us to "eat food, not too much, mostly plants." In my own research I have traced that bit of advice back to the early Mediterranean diet studies Ancel Keys conducted in Greece, Italy and Yugoslavia. It does seem that before World War II there was a tendency to put more vegetables at the center of the plate and eat smaller portions of meat. Certainly, there was very little processed food. In addition, it seems, particularly on Crete, there was a much higher emphasis on whole grains and very little use of white flour, which, as you probably know, causes a certain degree of waste and is not particularly good for our health. Any thoughts on how we might bring a true Mediterranean diet to America?

Hazan: If you follow the spirit and letter of Marcella's books, you will be cooking Mediterranean. A cornucopia of vegetable cookery. Small portions. Repeat, SMALL portions. Dazzling and simple seafood and fish. A variety of fats, with the emphasis on olive oil, but not ignoring lard, or butter, when territorially appropriate. In my opinion, Mediterranean cooking will not be broadly successful in America. Portions are too large. Cooks don't understand what makes the taste of vegetables bloom. Tasteless vegetables are piled up helter-skelter on the dinner plate, as a bonus. Actually, they are a distraction. They should instead be as important as any other course. That is how Italians serve them. 

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Vegan Mushroom Bolognese

While this is not Marcella's idea or Marcella- approved, this vegan Bolognese was created by Paul Greenberg and inspired by Hazan's famous recipe.