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 co-founded 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.”
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