For a long time after his wife died, Victor Hazan couldn't bear to read the notebooks that contained her final book. He would open a cover, look at her distinctive handwriting and find it too painful to go on.
Marcella Hazan, the famed cookbook writer, had broken her right arm as a child, and the bone was set so badly that she had to write with her left hand. Her script resembled the writing of a small child. Facing it would mean facing her. The notebooks stayed closed.
"Handwriting is a mirror of a person's soul," Victor said. "It was a trauma for me."
And then, about a year after Marcella died in 2013, Victor had dinner with a friend who asked about the notebooks. Victor remembered the large espresso he would bring Marcella as she wrote. He remembered how she labored in her final working days to finish the book. It meant something to her. He turned the cover and began working on Ingredienti, published 12 July by Scribner.
"I couldn't help bringing the book to life," said Victor, 88. "For her."
Ingredienti isn't so much a cookbook as it is a manual, with evocative descriptions, about choosing even commonplace ingredients with care. The section on sage describes "its soft, furry gray-green leaves." The pages on thyme note its fragrance, "suave, cool and penetrating."
It includes sweeping thoughts on how to use produce, but this isn't a collection of recipes with ingredients in one column and preparation instructions in the other. It is about buying the best possible meat, vegetables and herbs and using them without fuss.
The small white volume epitomizes Marcella's lifelong devotion to simplicity. Most of her recipes use only a handful of ingredients, a byproduct of growing up in Italy with limited means and cooking with as little as possible. She constantly stripped away the unnecessary to get to the essential, letting components speak for themselves.
In the book, she describes having a "relationship" with her ingredients.
"I thought about them, even when I wasn't shopping for them," she wrote. "I thought about their fragrance, their colour, their texture, their flavor. In the market, I loved to pick them up, which I would not have been permitted to do at any produce stall in Italy, inspect them, test them for firmness, admire their freshness, smell them."
While writing about food was Marcella's life, it was Victor's life too. Throughout her long career, he deciphered her tight round letters and translated them into English, ensuring that her precise instructions for everything from a three-ingredient tomato sauce to polenta shortcake could be followed by generations of cooks.
Victor says Marcella was the genius; he just helped. But they did everything together — talked about ingredients, discussed flavors and combinations. Much of their 60 years of marriage revolved around the kitchen.
Opening the notebooks was a struggle because a huge piece of his life disappeared when she died. But as he summoned the courage to work, their life together returned to him — a parting gift few in his place receive.
"Those notebooks were very much alive. The handwriting was alive, the descriptions were alive. For well over a year, Marcella was alive to me," he said. "This was a great privilege."
Victor lived vicariously through her descriptions, cooking her recipes, making dozens of decisions a cook faces in preparing a dish. Cooking, Victor points out, is not baking. It's not an absolute science. When, for example, is the right moment to turn off the heat when braising chicken? When is it the correct color of brown?
He often wondered what she would have said. "It never really tasted the way Marcella would make it," he said. "She cooked as an artist might paint."
But he kept at it during a sentimental and emotional year. He remembered watching her in the kitchen. He relived their days, one dish at a time.
"I would talk aloud to Marcella in the kitchen and say, 'This is as close as I could do to make it.'"
Marcella and Victor were born in small villages near Ravenna, Italy. He moved to the United States before World War II, returning to Italy when he was 23. They met at a beach town near their homes, married in 1955 and moved to New York, where Victor worked for a family fur business.
Marcella began teaching cooking in their apartment. She had one Italian cookbook and a few recipes her mother had sketched out. But what she lacked in formal culinary training, she made up for with her palate. She was precise, uncompromising and impatient, but she liked to teach and to share. In 1973, she published The Classic Italian Cook Book, followed by five more cookbooks and a memoir.
Even though Victor was the conduit for her words, it is Marcella's sometimes irritable voice that comes through.
"I hope people understand that there may be angles that are sharp, but they come from a gem," Victor says. "She was a gem. Every one of her facets projected light."