Tuesday, December 17, 2013

the birth of "The Classic Italian Cook Book"

This is the original Harper's Magazine Press edition of "The Classic Italian Cook Book", published forty years ago, in November, 1973. My name is Peter Mollman, (the proprietor of this blog) and I was the editor and publisher of this landmark of the culinary world. Here is how it came into being.

In 1972 I was a Senior Vice President at Harper & Row Publishers, New York. I was responsible for all copy editing, design and manufacturing for the over 200 annual titles published by that major publisher. Simply: an editor at Harper's (and we had superb editors) gave my team the edited author's manuscript, and we took that manuscript and ended with finished books on the warehouse floor, ready to ship.

In addition to that job, I had an ancillary position as Publisher of Harper's Magazine Press, a fairly new joint venture between Harper & Row and Harper's, the magazine. Harper's was at a major level at that time, under the editor Willie Morris, and with a "dream team" cast of writers and contributors. The press was small - just me, as publisher, from Harper & Row, and Larry Freundlich, as editor, from the magazine side. We published about twenty titles a year, most derived from relationships with the magazine's editors and authors (Annie Dillard, Pete Axthelm and Bill Moyers for example) but also a number of titles of authors or subjects that Larry or I had a special interest in.

In the summer of 1972 I was in Italy for the third successive summer. My trips were a result of our publishing a number of art books and large-format pictorial books at Harper, including
"Forever Wild" and other Sierra Club titles. Our high-quality color printing was all done in Italy, where the artisan color separators and pressmen were located, in Milan and Verona primarily, and I was on hand at those establishments for the printing process.

During those wonderful trips I, like so many, fell in love with Italy: the landscape, the people, the great cities, the art, and -- especially -- the food. In a New York Italian restaurant world headed by Mama Leone's, what I ate in those wonderful trattorias in Italy was awesome -- a surprise and a delight.

At Harper we had a strong cook book tradition -- publishing Craig Claiborne, for example -- so I knew the cook book publishing scene. And I was sure there was no cook book published to that time that reflected the kind of and quality of the Italian food I had been eating. I wanted to publish that book. So, armed with a title I had already developed in my mind -- "The Classic Italian Cook Book" -- I set out to find an author.

I was having little if any success until the September 7, 1972 edition of the New York Times arrived at my desk. In that edition was an article by Raymond Sokolov: "Anyone for Cooking Lessons in the Long, Cold Winter Ahead?" -- with a long list of major cooking schools available in New York City. Included in that list were major figures such as James Beard, Cordon Bleu, Virginia Lee, Diane Kennedy. And also on that list was Marcella Hazan.

The paragraph about her school said: "Mrs. Hazan, just back from Italy, is resuming her classes in "authentic Italian food." She specializes in northern and central Italian recipes and structures her lessons around full menus with wines. Students sit down with her and eat what they have helped make. Classes are limited to six students. The basic course of six three-hour sessions can be scheduled either on Mondays at 6 p.m., Tuesdays at 10:30 a.m. or Thursdays at 10:30 a.m. starting the week of October 4. The price is $95. An advanced course will be available to Mrs. Hazan's former students for $115. Phone 246-7614."

That was it. I picked up the phone and called. Marcella answered. I told her I read about her cooking school and was interested in whether she might want to write a cook book. Marcella's English wasn't that good at the time; she said she and her husband had talked about a cook book, and that they would get back to me. (In her memoirs she reported that when telling Victor about the call she thought that I was from Harper's Bazaar).

Victor did call back. I told him who I was and why I was interested -- relating how much I loved eating in Italy and why shouldn't that food be available to the home cooks in this country. This, I learned later, was exactly what the Hazan's approach to cooking was and what turned out to be their mantra through the next almost forty years of authoring cook books and teaching cooking.  

Victor, on the phone, said they were very interested. They invited me to meet them at their apartment for dinner. Marcella's recollection of the evening is wonderful. I had described what I was looking for, a cook book with recipes for dishes that were like the ones I had in Italy. I asked her if she would like to write one. She said, "No, I can't write in English." Victor broke in: "I can put it in English for you." And he could, and they did.

From my side, I believe we "connected" almost immediately. In dealing in the publishing world through the years, one comes across one's share of egos, stardom, and self importance. Not only was I struck by the genuineness and sincerity of the Hazan's at that meeting, in addition to their obvious knowledge and skills, but I also felt that there was something major going on, hard to define, but there.

The rest was easy. I visited Marcella at her home several more times, took a class (I still have the typed recipe for scallopine di vitello al Marsala), talked with Victor, a Harvard graduate (as was my son, so we had something else in common) and we agreed to move forward.

Within a month or so of our meeting, we had a contract. I am ashamed to mention how small the advance was -- working with a first-time author, and a new subject, true -- but I am still ashamed so I won't mention it. In the publishing world the fact that we could go from first meeting to a meeting of the minds, a common goal, and a contract, in that short time was unprecedented. It was really a factor of our being a stand-alone, small publishing unit, with no decision making required except mine and Larry's. And we made decisions fast.

In signing a contract, there is the line for "delivery of manuscript". At the contract signing in my offices o, East 33d Street, I read it, and paused. Marcella said, I believe, "three months". I smiled and said, "Let's make it ten." The Hazans delivered the manuscript in less than ten months, and what a manuscript it was.

The organization, all theirs, was perfect; the style of presentation of the recipes was clean, clear and totally understandable. No complicated stuff thrown in. And Victor was not only an excellent translator, he was truly a poet. If you read the introductions to the different chapters, and, especially, read the "Afterthoughts", which is like nothing else in the cook book world, you will see what I mean. It was an incredible collaboration! From the words in the text, we came up with that I think is a brilliant and accurate subtitle: "The art of Italian cooking and the Italian art of eating."

In addition to the text, we had the services of a superb draftsman, George Koizumi,who worked closely with Marcella to provide instructional drawings that really worked. The drawings for making pasta, for example, are works of art in themselves.

As excellent as the manuscript was, different, sharp eyes examining it will find ways to make it better -- striving for perfection. Our copy editors at Harper were those trained, sharp eyes: making sure all the ingredients were there, were added properly, cooking steps clear and logical, no redundancies, all details covered (like cooking, is the pan covered or not). The Hazans got their marked up text and galleys, cleaned up the details, corrected and added as necessary, and the book moved through galleys, pages and finally printed sheets.

And then in late October we had the first printed books. The rest is history.

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