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Monday, 31 January 2011

Lael Hazan: A Writer's Journey

I’m honored that Jamie asked me to participate in the From Plate to Page blog. It has only been quite recently that I’ve started to think of myself as a food writer with a voice of my own. As many of you who read my blog know, I married into culinary royalty. My husband is Giuliano Hazan, a rather renowned Italian cookbook author and educator who regularly appears on national TV in the USA, and my mother-in-law is Marcella Hazan, considered the doyenne of Italian cuisine. For most of my married life I remained backstage in the food world. After all, what did this California girl know about authentic Italian cooking? I first had to learn that risotto was made out of rice rather than pasta.

The Hazan Family:
front row left to right
: Marcella Hazan, Gabriella Hazan, Jacquelynne Caplan

back row left to right: Victor Hazan, Lael Hazan, Michela Hazan, Giuliano Hazan

Although my circumstances might have been different, my many concerns were common. The refrain that raced through my head for much of my early years, wasn’t terribly original, it was “What if I am not good enough?” I’ve been fortunate to meet so many great writers and thinkers, how could I consider myself their equal? In addition to my own mind - numbing angst, I was born dyslexic. I was very lucky that my parents caught it early; however, the entire time I was in school, I never turned in a paper that hadn’t been proof-read. Even now, I plan to create a T-shirt with the statement, I don’t spell; I spell check.

I was fortunate to grow up in Sacramento, California to a family that was committed to the printed word. My mother was an administrator in the school district and my father was an antiquarian book dealer. Although it took me until second grade to begin to read, I began devouring books almost immediately. One of my father’s close friends was Darrell Corti, who is considered the “Foodies Foodie” who inspired a Facebook group site called Darrell Corti will always know more than you about Food and Wine. Listening to him, as well as, since the age of 6, attending meals of many cuisines with my parents and their friends in the late 70’s and early 80’s opened my eyes – and stomach – to an entire world of food.

Marriage to Giuliano has been an exhilarating gastronomic experience. I learned about buying the freshest products and the careful preparation of even the simplest meal. With him, I have been fortunate to meet some of the great Italian food artisans. Soon after we married, Giuliano was able to fulfill one of his life long dreams of opening a cooking school in Italy. Although I had helped research the sites where we take our students, it took a few years, and many people continually asking me questions, for me to realize I did have something to offer.

Villa Giona, the site of the Hazans' cooking school in Italy

My undergraduate work is in Renaissance History and this was a great foundation for our cooking school. In college I remember trying to figure out a recipe of Cicero’s in Latin, and an exhaustive but delicious research expedition into the history of Tiramisù. So after a few years, I began teaching the historical component during our courses. I soon added myth and legends and our students suggested that I write them down.

Honestly, it took me until I was 40 to get over myself. I had what social workers sometimes diagnose as the “worried well” disease. There will always be those who have the ability to write more lyrically than I; however, not all of them will choose to write. At the same time, one wonders at some of the work that receives writing accolades. The same is true for expertise. No, I did not go to culinary school. Neither did many of the foremost food writers and editors. So why shouldn’t I, who has now had years of experience in the field, write? I would highly recommend to food writers that they learn about their subject. If you don’t know about an ingredient, research it! If you can, travel to the place where it is made. Also, you must test your recipes. As contributing editor for Saveur.com, I reviewed hundreds of recipes on blogs everyday, and some dishes were impossible to reproduce.

A few years ago, I decided “enough” with putting limits on myself. I had learned about blogging but wasn’t yet doing it. Although I wrote some short press releases and articles for the agencies where I worked or for our school in Italy, I wasn’t yet doing it for myself. I found our community’s weekly paper online and asked if I could write for them. They were delighted to get a person who would work for free. Since I wasn’t getting paid, it gave me the freedom to explore various writing styles and submit as often as my time would allow. I also took some continuing education classes in writing, and realized (again) it was mostly about self-confidence.

According to Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, 10,000 hours of experience is what it takes to be an expert. And most writing instructors agree that practice increases your fluency and ability in writing. After writing for the weekly, I started submitting my work to other magazines and newspapers. I came to the attention of the online editor for Saveur Magazine and had a wonderful few months as contributing online editor. Unfortunately, like most periodicals, they restructured, and I was restructured out of a job. However, it gave me the chance to virtually meet amazing bloggers and writers. There is a wealth of talent out there, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for more. Recently I’ve been writing for Sarasota Magazine, Huffington Post, Edible Sarasota and our own blog, Educated Palate: Lael & Giuliano Hazan’s Blog.

I think most of us are in a rut and are often frightened of life. Clinical Psychologist and Parenting expert Dr. Wendy Mogel recently reported that it wasn’t the best schools or highest grades that made the most successful people, it was those who were flexible and had a positive outlook on life. As you know, that is easier said than done. I recently published an article online where I misspelled the name of an organization. OOPS! I did link to the organizations website. I was called on the carpet and told that if I were to mention them in the future the organization would need to check any reference of them for spelling. Yuck! Obviously, I’m not going to write about that organization again. Previously, that would have been a devastating experience. Now, I have much more important things in my life and… I get to write this post about the experience. Yes, it’s important not to let the little things get you down.

Our family straddles the bridge between new media and old. Years ago, I was fortunate to be at the Aspen Food and Wine Festival with Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, Marcella Hazan, and other greats. They were accessible people who loved talking about their passion. This past year, I met some of the bloggers with the largest followings: Jaden Hair, Elise Bauer, David Leite, Shauna Ahern, and Ree Drummond; they too spoke about their passion. I find it amusing that the net bewilders many of the well-known cookbook authors…they know they should “be out there” but are intimidated. They are very concerned that their book sales are declining and see social media as the only salvation. On the other hand, I have yet to meet a food blogger who doesn’t secretly harbor the idea of a book deal. Many have published, but only a few of the blogger books have been truly successful. Is it because they are truly two separate worlds? Is it because bloggers don’t buy books when they can get it free on the net? There are a few successful straddlers, however, they are grappling with whether to ever publish a hard copy again. Book deals and getting paid for writing is the subject of most of the conferences I’ve attended and are often the topics of many blogs.

For me the key has been overcoming myself. No, I’m not making tons of money, but I’m certainly enjoying myself. I get to meet wonderful people and enjoy delicious food. Those writers who get into this as a way to make money will probably be disappointed. However, those who wake up in the morning thinking about the discovery of some new ingredient or testing a new recipe and writing about their experience have a chance to go far.

What is my advice to a newbie? Do it out of love! Start blogging for fun and see if you can keep it up consistently. Network through social media and find like-minded souls. If you discover that this is your passion and want to expand your base, offer to write for others. This is a great community, participate! Then, begin keeping a record of the work you are most proud of… limit it to five articles. If there is a magazine, journal, or webzine that you have an idea for, write out a coherent, proofread, one-paragraph synopsis with attachments to your pieces and send a cover letter. If you have a loved one or close friend who is willing to review your work, please let them, you don’t have to take all of their suggestions, but another pair of eyes always is beneficial. The Internet makes it easy to find whom to submit to, but PLEASE, do your homework and make sure your idea fits with the concept of the magazine. It is your responsibility to do your homework. Also, don’t expect an answer right away, it may take awhile. Yes, a follow up e-mail after at least a week is fine, and a phone call to make sure they’ve got it is OK too. Your work may go into the black hole, but through perseverance and resubmission you may find success. Also, this is an INCREDIBLY generous community of people who may help you make the right connections. Just remember when you are rich and famous to share as well.


Lael, you are such a marvelous writer and I love your sense of humor!I feel honored to have met you! I love the family pic! Wow! you guys are one talented family!

Oh Lael ~ I really liked you the moment we met but am now a fiercely loyal fan for life!! And it's because of who YOU are, because you've shared yourself here in this space. I relate to this post on soooooo many levels (I'm not married to Italian royalty though) but I think so many of us struggle with being 'enough' - not pretty enough, not smart enough, not talented enough - the list is long and a tad bit boring, really. But I love how you said that after 40 you finally 'got over yourself' and just did what you loved to do. Am still trying to figure all of it out, still trying to better myself with the craft of writing and photography as well as our documentary pieces. But all of it somehow fills me so I will persevere. I am so happy that you agreed to post here - it's been a delight to read!

Wonderful article, Lael.

I think you are right, just about everyone in every profession secretly thinks they aren't good enough, aren't smart enough, don't have enough background, don't write well enough. Blah blah blah. "Mind talk" as it is called in More To Life (a personal growth program that helped me tremendously - http://moretolife.org/).

It takes a lot of guts to expose these thoughts the way you do in this piece, and it helps other people to see past those self-imposed limitations so they can do what they really love. Good on ya!

I am honored beyond words that you included me in this piece! Meeting you this year has been one of my favorite experiences.

I would love to paste the last paragraph of this piece onto the computer screen of every single blogger. it is about the passion and the chance to practice it, NOT the succes that passion might produce. Thank you.

What a beautiful post, Lael. I don't know you but I wish I could give you a big hug for being so brave to face your fears and insecurities and embrace what you love. :-) I so enjoyed this piece and love your pictures. :-)

Lael - love this piece. Glad it got a lot of RTs. You nailed it for me in so many ways - I am 40 something and finally pursuing my passion by writing a food blog and building relationships with people in the world of food. My whole family loves it and I just feel at home in this community. Have no idea yet where I'll go with it but I know I'm loving it. I have days when I think my writing or photos or blog design just aren't good enough, but then someone leaves me a comment and tells me they loved my photos or story or recipe. Besides, I'm not getting paid (yet) so what is "good enough"?

Thanks for sharing great advice and your story.

Outstanding job, Lael! How wonderful that you shared so much and were so open--thank you. I love the part about "worried well." I try to remember to ask myself "what's the worst that could happen?" when I step outside my comfort zone. Usually I realize that life will go on even if there's an undesired outcome as you demonstrated. Things happen ... we go on. But more often than not, we do just fine.

I don't know how anyone can resist your cooking school after seeing that photo and hearing a little bit more about it. I love hearing about your role in it and how that naturally grew. Very cool! I learned so much from you, Lael, during our brief time together at BlogHer Food, but am continuing to learn from and enjoy your articles that I am seeing all over--you're practicing what you're preaching! :-)

Thanks so much!

Thank you Lael for sharing your experience here on the Plate To Plate blog!

Just wonderful Lael. I found myself nodding to so many things you said in this article. I've loved "getting to know" you and thank you so much for sharing so much of you in this article!

What a beautifully honest post that perfectly captures what so many of us experience and yet are afraid to voice. I agree, we all get in our own way sometimes, we over think everything we do and assume that if we aren't "perfect" we shouldn't be trying in the first place. Fear can really be our worst enemy. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and you perspective on these issues.

Thank you for an inspiring post, Lael! Isn't it incredible what we can do when we swallow our fears and just learn to BE?? Wonderful advice for aspiring food writers - thank you!

Thank you, friend, for writing such an open, honest piece. So many of us feel self-doubt and fear of putting ourselves forward and sometimes we just have to do it. It's amazing that your advantage of being in such a visible family could also be a burden and thank heaven you have learned how to deal with it beautifully. You know I think you are a fabulous, talented writer and maybe that self-doubt also helps us look more realistically at our own work, allowing us to constantly be in a state of evolution which is always to our advantage. Thank you so much for writing for Plate to Page and sharing your story with us!

Lael! I love that our community is so incredibly generous and loving. I never feel alone and it's friends like you that keep blogging fun.


Lael, this is a wonderful piece for anyone who aspires to share their stories and experiences.
You've taken the 'scary' out of pushing the send button.

Thank you!!!

I have such a different perspective on this and I guess it's from my long history of combining the web and recipes. My first foray into that realm was 16 years ago when I decided that my first website would be one to store my recipes. In all honesty I did that because I just needed to create something as I knew then it was a professional direction I was leaning towards.

Now many years later, that effort isn't enough. Now we have to become almost professionals in photography and are critiqued for our writing skills. Yet I still do it for the love of cooking and sharing with others and often the writing is a burden I have no time for...so I can say this with absolute truth. I do not want a book deal. It is not something I covet nor would be excited about; as a matter of fact just thinking of it sounds like a huge burden. Besides, 3/4 of the recipes in a church cookbook done years ago are mine (they knew who to lean on!) and I'll count that if I ever get waylaid in my thinking!

I just love to cook and feed people and guess that's how I feel when I'm taking the time to blog about what I've made for my family, friends and neighbors. Sharing that experience with others.

Great article though and I appreciate your personal experience and insight and letting us know YOU more!

Great article - I really enjoyed reading your story, Lael. Even more so as Marcella Hazan has always been my favourite Italian cookery writer - I probably cook her recipes every week - and I can only imagine how hard it must have been to find your own identity living with such a legend in the family!

A lovely piece. I certainly enjoy writing about cooking my way through your family's books. I don't know if I'm part of the 'community' or not, but I've enjoyed interacting with you all on Facebook.

Thank you for this article and your transparency about your self confidence. I want to be a food writer but I seem to always find a million reasons why I'm not qualified, don't have enough time, blah blah blah. This was a good reminder to stay on the path. Thanks for the motivation.

Despite the fact that you have married into culinary royalty, you have your own unique and honest voice and that is what makes you so endearing Lael!

Lael, Thank you so much for sharing your story. I appreciate your vulnerability, insight, and encouragement. Just what I needed today.

Nice post. I have been successful with my cookbooks online and I do have a blog that I try to keep up. Right now I'm writing a huge cookbook - gluten-free and low-carb.

Amazing the people you hob nob with. I would have LOVED to have met Julia Child!

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