Remembering Carol Field, the "Italian Baker" Who Brought Ciabatta to America

Credit: Courtesy Ten Speed Press

Award-winning chef and bestselling author Carol Field died of a stroke at her San Francisco home on Friday, less than three weeks after losing her husband of 56 years. She was 76.

Known for introducing regional Italian breads such as ciabatta and focaccia to a wider American audience, Field turned her passion for Italy into a wide-ranging celebration of its cuisine and culture. "Her books on Italian food are among the best cookbooks and the most insightful cultural treatises on the foods of Italy ever written," San Francisco Chronicle reporter Karole Saekel wrote in 1997.

Her first cookbook, The Italian Baker, was named best of the year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 1986. Twenty-six years later, the James Beard Foundation included it in its Baker’s Dozen list, a compilation of 13 indispensable baking books. Around that same time, a bookseller in New York realized the book had gone out of print and panicked: “It’s like not being able to find Jane Austen,” he pleaded. The “The Italian Baker” was republished in 2011.

Field first fell in love with Italian culture after spending three months in Liguria, helping her husband film a documentary for PBS in 1972. From that moment on, she became an unofficial promoter of Italian culture. Corby Kummer, a senior editor at The Atlantic, says she identified with the intimacy shared and the bond formed by Italians whenever they ate together: “What she always had an eye for was the culture and the idea of groups and family sharing that lies behind every Italian meal,” said Kummer, who’s also a five-time James Beard Journalism award winner. “That deep, loving curiosity and loving, discerning eye made many people fall in love with Italy.” In 2004, she was named a Knight in the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.

Before she became an expert in Italian cuisine, Field worked as a journalist and editor, writing for publications such as Gourmet, Bon Appétit, and the now-defunct City magazine, which was owned by her friend Francis Ford Coppola. Her style of journalistic writing carried over to her cookbooks, and she became one of the first authors to place as much emphasis on the cultural and historical context of the cuisine as in the food preparation itself. "I'm not interested in just writing recipes. I think of myself as a writer first," she told the New York Times in 1991.

Her approach worked: Twenty-five years after it was first published, The Italian Baker was still the definitive book on Italian bread," wrote former Los Angeles Times food editor Russ Parsons in 2011.