She helped bring rise to pop­u­lar­ity Ital­ian breads

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY EMILY LANGER emily.langer@wash­

Carol Field, a food writer who led a gen­er­a­tion of cooks on an ex­plo­ration of Ital­ian cul­ture and cui­sine with beloved vol­umes in­clud­ing “The Ital­ian Baker,” died March 10 at a hos­pi­tal in San Fran­cisco. She was 76.

The cause was com­pli­ca­tions from a stroke, said her son, Matt Field.

Mrs. Field taught her­self to cook af­ter mar­ry­ing at age 21 and prided her­self on be­ing the “first Ital­ian” in her “fam­ily tree.” She traced her in­ter­est in the Ital­ian kitchen to her so­journ in a small Lig­urian town, Pugli­ola, where her hus­band, an ar­chi­tect, was to film a PBS doc­u­men­tary on city plan­ning in 1972.

What be­gan as cu­rios­ity about the coun­try’s land­scapes and fla­vors grew into a pas­sion that lasted the rest of her life. Her first book, “The Hill Towns of Italy” (1983), with photographs by Richard Kauff­man, doc­u­mented the splen­dor of com­mu­ni­ties such as San Gimignano, Gub­bio and As­sisi perched pre­car­i­ously on the coun­try’s hill­sides.

Her sec­ond book — and best known — was “The Ital­ian Baker” (1985), an en­cy­clo­pe­dic tome doc­u­ment­ing the his­tory and art of Italy’s breads, cakes and pas­tries. It is a tra­di­tion as var­ied as Italy it­self, en­com­pass­ing the pil­lowy fo­cac­cia of Lig­uria, the heavy, hon­eyed pan­forte of Siena and the sweet cas­sata of Si­cily.

The vol­ume ranked on the James Beard Foun­da­tion’s “Baker’s Dozen” of sem­i­nal books on bak­ing, among nu­mer­ous other hon­ors Mrs. Field re­ceived in the United States and Italy.

“Ev­ery bread baker, home or pro, has been in­flu­enced, know­ingly or un­know­ingly, by Carol Field’s ‘Ital­ian Baker,’ ” Corby Kum­mer, a food writer and se­nior edi­tor of the Atlantic, ob­served in the New York Times in 2011.

Kum­mer cred­ited her with help­ing fuel the rise — so to speak — of the pop­u­lar­ity in the United States of fo­cac­cia, a del­i­cacy she ex­plored in the book “Fo­cac­cia: Sim­ple Breads From the Ital­ian Oven” (1994).

“Fo­cac­cia is to the north of Italy what pizza is to the south,” she wrote in The Washington Post in 1994, “a rus­tic flat bread with a sur­face fra­grant with olive oil, herbs from the hill­sides and any num­ber of tasty in­gre­di­ents har­vested from the fields and the sea. Pizza may be the more fa­mous cousin, but fo­cac­cia is tak­ing the coun­try by storm.”

As for the many va­ri­eties of pizza, she once ob­served: “Th­ese crisp or chewy coun­try breads are the food of peas­ants and wily city dwellers with lit­tle money but lots of imag­i­na­tion.”

Such in­sights placed her, food writer Molly O’Neill wrote in the Times in 1997, “in the rare pan­theon of cookbook writ­ers who are eru­dite an­thro­pol­o­gists as well.”

Mrs. Field’s other books in­cluded “Cel­e­brat­ing Italy” (1990), about the re­gional fes­ti­vals by which Ital­ians mark the pas­sage of sea­sons.

For that vol­ume, Mrs. Field trav­eled up and down the spine of Italy many times over to wit­ness events such as the Feast of San Domenico in May, fea­tur­ing snake han­dlers, in Cocullo; the in­fio­rate in June in Spello, where the streets are car­peted in flower petals ar­ranged in artis­tic de­signs; and the au­tum­nal pump­kin fes­ti­val in Vil­lastrada.

“When I dis­cov­ered a fes­ti­val cel­e­brat­ing lard,” she wrote, “I knew that the Ital­ians could cel­e­brate any­thing.”

Mrs. Field also wrote “Italy in Small Bites” (1993), about the snacks called merende or spun­tini that “usu­ally re­quire only two eat­ing im­ple­ments: one right hand and one left hand,” she quipped to the Chicago Tri­bune. In the cookbook “In Nonna’s Kitchen: Recipes and Traditions From Italy’s Grand­moth­ers” (1997), she doc­u­mented the home-cook­ing prac­tices that she saw fad­ing away with the ar­rival of a new rhythm of life.

“I’m re­ally in­ter­ested in . . . pre­serv­ing traditions, which is why I went to see the grand­moth­ers,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1997. “Their daugh­ters have gone to work and so have their grand­daugh­ters. I’m just as­ton­ished by how lit­tle some of the daugh­ters and grand­daugh­ters know. They are used to be­ing cooked for and they are used to the food, but they don’t know any­thing about it. And they don’t have time to learn it.”

Carol He­len Hart was born in San Fran­cisco on March 27, 1940, and grew up in a home filled with lit­er­a­ture if not traditions of cook­ing. Her father, James D. Hart, chair­man of the English depart­ment at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley, was the au­thor of “The Ox­ford Com­pan­ion to Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture.” Her mother, the former Ruth Arn­stein, was an ac­tivist for civil rights and other so­cial-jus­tice causes.

In 1961, Mrs. Field re­ceived a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in English from Welles­ley Col­lege in Mas­sachusetts. Shortly there­after, she co­founded a book­store, Min­erva’s Owl, in San Fran­cisco.

Fol­low­ing her sab­bat­i­cal in Italy, she be­gan writ­ing for film­maker Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola’s City mag­a­zine in San Fran­cisco. Her by­line also ap­peared in publications in­clud­ing Gourmet, Bon Ap­petit and Food & Wine, and she was fea­tured on tele­vi­sion with chefs in­clud­ing Ju­lia Child and Mario Batali. In ad­di­tion to her cook­books, she wrote a novel, “Man­goes and Quince” (2001).

Mrs. Field’s hus­band, John Field, died in Fe­bru­ary af­ter 55 years of mar­riage. Sur­vivors in­clude two chil­dren, Matt Field of San Fran­cisco and Ali­son Field of Chest­nut Hill, Mass.; a brother, the noted poll­ster Peter Hart, of Washington; and three grand­chil­dren.

Mrs. Field and her hus­band had homes in San Fran­cisco and the Tus­can town of Pe­dona. She was drawn to Italy, she once re­marked, be­cause there “you have your cul­ture and can eat it, too.”


Carol Field in 2007, with “Italy in Small Bites,” one of many books she wrote about the food and cul­ture of the Euro­pean coun­try.

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