SEARCHING FOR NIKA HAZELTON, THE NO-NONSENSE COOK

January 23, 2011

One of the first cookbooks that I read by Nika Hazelton was something titled, “I COOK AS I PLEASE”, published in 1974. It was one of the first cookbooks that I found in which the author had skillfully woven memoir with recipes—and I was charmed. I was also hooked and wanted to learn more about Nika Hazelton. I began searching for her cookbooks.

Researching a cookbook author is not always an easy task—years ago, very little biographical information about cookbook authors was provided by the publishers. Today, any well-known cookbook author (such as James Beard, Elizabeth David, M.F.K. Fisher, to name a few), has biographies written about them and the publisher usually provides a fairly substantial background bio on the book jacket. This wasn’t the case with cookbooks published decades ago. But when the collection of recipes is also a memoir, much can be gleaned from within the pages of the book, and not just from the dust jacket.

Let’s start with what we do know.

Nika Hazelton was born in Rome, (German father, Roman mother), grew up in Switzerland, and received her schooling in England. Nika studied under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics. She spent her early years traveling to the capitals of Europe with her father, who was a German diplomat.

In 1935, Nika made her home in the United States. She was considered an expert in the food of many countries. Nika began writing cookbooks during World War II, and at least seven of those books were on European cuisine. In addition to writing cookbooks, Nika was editor of the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Food and she wrote for virtually every major magazine, including The New Yorker, Family Circle, Vogue and Virginia Quarterly. . She also had a monthly column in The National Review and was a regular contributor to The New York Times. In addition, Nika was an editorial writer for Harper’s Bazaar, covering food stories. (With all the writing that she did for various magazines, it’s a wonder she found time to write cookbooks as well!).

One of her earliest books, “THE ART OF CHEESE COOKERY” was first published in 1949 by Doubleday & Company under the name of Nika Standen. Other books were published under the name of Nika Standen Hazelton and, later, just Nika Hazelton.

A clue to the type of cook she was can be found in the Introduction to “FROM NIKA HAZELTON’S KITCHEN”, published in 1985. “FROM NIKA HAZELTON’S KITCHEN” was not intended to be a cookbook for beginners. She lets you know from the onset that she assumes, if you have bought and are reading this book, you know something about cooking. She also explains that she likes simple foods made with the best ingredients available. Nika Hazelton was definitely a no-nonsense type of cook!

She used only freshly grated Parmesan cheese and the finest Tuscan olive oil (although she admitted to frying with peanut oil). She preferred butter over margarine for the simple reason that it tasted better. Nika never worried about cholesterol since she didn’t like fatty or greasy foods anyway and she removed all fat from meats and poultry (except when roasting a chicken!).

Nika said that she used few herbs and spices in her cooking because she disliked the flavor of too many herbs in one dish. “To my taste,” she wrote, I prefer to taste either basil or thyme or marjoram or sage or whatever in one dish rather than a combination of herbs.” However, she admitted to being less rigid with combinations of spices.

Nika wrote that she made cakes the old fashioned way, from scratch. She described her kitchen as being furnished with basic equipment, which included a KitchenAid mixer to mix, a Cuisinart to mince, a rotary peeler to peel and a small mandolin to cut transparent slices of potatoes and cucumbers. She writes, “My kitchen also sports a couple of balloon whisks, wooden spoons, good knives, and a very sharp pair of scissors, as well as the standard paraphernalia of measuring cups, mixing bowls, measuring spoons and so forth…”

She explains that she lived in the city and didn’t have much kitchen space, so she kept only bare essentials on hand in the pantry and said that she used very few canned foods (tomatoes, chickpeas and beans). Simplicity was Nika’s keyword throughout this introduction and to explain this philosophy, she said that she liked to keep things simple, possibly because throughout her life she had to cook for a family as well as professionally. Consequently, Nika adopted (to quote her), a “somewhat dispassionate” view of cooking—which may be a far cry from the themes of most professional cooks and cookbook authors. Generally, we expect a high level of enthusiasm from our cookbook authors! On the other hand, “FROM NIKA HAZELTON’S KITCHEN” was published in 1985 and the dear lady had been cooking and writing by this time for quite a few decades. Although I still haven’t determined the date of her birth we do know that she came to the United States in 1935 and wrote a number of cookbooks during World War II.

At the time of writing “I COOK AS I PLEASE”, published in 1974, the author was living on Riverside Drive in New York City, with her husband, with a view that looked over the green trees of Riverside Park and the Hudson River. This kitchen is also described as small and utilitarian. The author says, “It is by no means a display kitchen where I celebrate with imported cookware or run a cooking school. Nor,” she adds, “is it a family kitchen where the folks gather for warmhearted meals. Family meals with children,” she admonishes, “are horrible, yet children have to eat with their betters, as parents were called in a less permissive age, to learn at least a modicum of table manners…”

Nika thought teen-age meals no less awful, “Since fights lie beneath the surface. My children have known all this from early childhood, and even now when we have lived through a family meal, we all say: ‘Thank God, all has gone off well.”

Her kitchen in “I COOK AS I PLEASE” is described as having black Formica counters, a butcher block top and pine cabinets that got waxed three times a year, “and that,” she proclaims, “is it, even in dirty New York.” She describes the contents of cabinets and drawers in this kitchen, with “ironed towels done by the laundry because ironed kitchen towels are nice and life is too short to iron them…” This drawer also contained her aprons because it had been a hard and fast rule in her mother’s kitchen to wear an apron. Another drawer is described as holding “the flotsam and jetsam of kitchen life: Hungarian pastry brushes made from goose feathers, frames for making chocolate leaves, rubber bands, candles for blackouts, bottle tops with artistic design on top given to me by a five-year-old child as a token of her affection, fondue forks, scallop shells, measuring tapes, and a collection of never-consulted food leaflets, including one on how to make cheese at home…”
(This, from a woman who wrote an entire cookbook about cheese!).

She didn’t have a dishwasher—this woman who had a laundry service to iron her dishtowels—and said she could live without one since she didn’t find dishwashing nasty, “whereas,” Nika proclaims, “I find making beds nasty…”

“As I wash up, under running hot water” she explains, “I muse about any number of subjects. Dishwashing is much better for musing than lying in one’s bath or in bed….” (To which I have to agree. But I have to say, I don’t iron dishtowels, nor are they done at a laundry!)

Nika confessed that cookbooks were another one of the subjects she mused about as she washed dishes, and she writes an entire chapter about cookbooks in “I Cook As I Please”—she comments, quite rightly I think, that “cookbooks are mostly bought as escape literature, not to cook from…” Well, I don’t agree with Nika last sentence but perhaps that is how she felt about too many cookbooks in the 1970s. Of all the Hazelton cookbooks in my possession, “I COOK AS I PLEASE” remains my favorite.

Nika Standen Hazelton is the author (or co-author) of the following cookbooks:

• REMIISCENCE AND RAVIOLI, 1946, William Morrow & Co.
• THE ART OF CHEESE COOKERY, (published under the name of Nika Standen) Doubleday & Company, 1949
• THE CONTINENTAL FLAVOR, 1961
• CLASSIC SCANDINAVIAN COOKING, 1965, 1987 Galahad Books
• THE ART OF SCANDINAVIAN COOKING, 1965
• THE SWISS COOKBOOK, 1967 Atheneum Publishers
• HOUSE OF INDIA COOKBOOK, 1967, co-authored with Syed Abdullah.
• HAMBURGER, 1972, SIMON & SHUSTER
• DINNER AT BUCKINGHAM PALACE, 1972, by Charles Oliver FORWARD by Nika Hazelton
• I COOK AS I PLEASE, 1974, Grosset & Dunlap
• UNABRIDGED VEGETABLE COOKBOOK 1976
• NIKA HAZELTON’S WAY WITH VEGETABLES, 1976 , republished 1995 by Castle Books
• AMERICAN HOME COOKING, 1980, Viking Press
• FAMILY CIRCLE RECIPES AMERICA LOVES BEST, 1982
• NIKA HAZELTON’S PASTA COOKBOOK, 1984, Ballantine Books
• FROM NIKA HAZELTON’S KITCHEN, 1985, Viking Press
• UPS AND DOWNS, MEMOIRS OF ANOTHER TIME, 1989, Harper & Row
• THE BELGIAN COOKBOOK
• EGGS!
• THE PICNIC BOOK
• STEWS!
• CHOCOLATE!
• THE BEST OF ITALIAN COOKING
• THE ART OF DANISH COOKING
• WHAT SHALL I COOK TODAY?
• THE COOKING OF GERMANY (Food of the World Series)
• RAGGEDY ANN AND ANDY’S COOKBOOK
• AMERICAN WINES
• THE REGIONAL ITALIAN KITCHEN
• LA CUISINE BY R. OLIVIER (translator and editor)
• THE RUSSIAN TEA ROOM COOKBOOK (co author Faith Stewart-Gordon)
• COOKIES AND BREADS; THE BAKER’S ART co-authored with Ilse Johnson and Ferdinand Boesch
• INGREDIENTS COOK’S* co-authored with Adrian Bailey and Philip Dowell (illustrator)

Like I have so many other times with other cookbook authors, I Googled Nika Standen Hazelton to see if I could find some biographical information. I did.

Nika Hazelton, Whose Cookbooks Influenced U.S. Tastes, Dies at 84
By MOLLY O’NEILL
Published: April 17, 1992
Nika Hazelton, whose cookbooks have been a mainstay of serious cooks for nearly half a century, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 84 years old and lived in Manhattan.
She died of natural causes after a lingering illness, said her son, Dr. S. A. Standen, who lives in London.
Mrs. Hazelton, the daughter of a German diplomat, was born in Rome, attended school there, and studied at the London School of Economics. She began her career as a reporter in 1930, covering the League of Nations for the German Press Association and then moving on to freelance work.
After marrying and emigrating to the United States in 1940, she began writing cookbooks with recipes culled primarily from home cooks throughout Europe and South America.
She published 30 books and they reflected her firm, no-nonsense taste in food. “American Home Cooking” (Bobbs Merrill, 1967), “French Home Cooking” (Viking Penguin, 1979,) “International Cookbook” (Harper & Row, 1967) and “The Italian Cookbook (Henry Holt, 1979) remain standards.
She was also a frequent contributor to the major food magazines and for several decades wrote a column about food, wine and travel for The National Review.
As cooking became trendy and precious in the United States, she seemed to raise a speculative eyebrow. Facing a group of wine writers in New York several years ago, Mrs. Hazelton waved aside questions about white truffles and little-known family vineyards. “I’m here to show you a meal from Tuscany that has the virtue of not being too expensive and not taking much genius or fuss to prepare,” she informed her audience and proceeded to demonstrate the proper way to make escarole and rice soup.

Her first marriage ended in divorce in 1954. She married Harold Hazelton in 1956. He died in November.
Mrs. Hazelton is survived by two sons, Dr. Standen and J. O. Standen, a lawyer in San Francisco, and three grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 3 P.M. on April 28 at St. Agnes Church on East 43d Street in Manhattan.

Correction: April 18, 1992, Saturday An obituary yesterday about the cookbook author Nika Hazelton misstated the day of her death and the date of a memorial service. She died on Wednesday, and the service will be on April 27, at 3 P.M., at the Church of St. Agnes, 141 East 43d Street, in Manhattan
**

I have to tell you, I was bemused to read about her comment to the group of wine writers, as indicated above in her obituary. That is so Nika.

*The obituary credits Ms. Hazelton with writing 30 cookbooks. Possibly they weren’t including the cookbooks she co-authored.

–Happy Cooking & Happy Cookbook reading!
Sandra Lee Smith

14 responses to “SEARCHING FOR NIKA HAZELTON, THE NO-NONSENSE COOK

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    • Hello, Ed – to you and some others who ask where I get my information….well for starters I have a filing cabint full of clippings and stories I have saved for about 30 years. I read something that sounds intriguing–and cut it out thinking someday I may want to write about this. I also find information on the dust jackets of books, sometimes remarks made by the author wihtin the book. I always try to give credit to the sourc of information. Additionally, I wrote for a cookbook collectors newsletter for about 12 years and I contributed to the newsletter with the understanding I was retaining all my rights to the article. Many of the articles I have posted are rewrites of articles originally posted in the CCE (Cookbook Collectors Exchange). A great deal of information can be found on Google and I have, in addition 3 bookcases full of books about food/the history of writing, and other topics that interest me. I often find myself digging out half a dozen books from my own bookcases to add to what ever I am working on. I hope this anwers everyone’s questions. Thank you for writing! – Sandy

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  11. I found myself receiving messages today, from Arthur–a man who knew and loved Nika Hazelton; here are his messages as written this morning:

    Date: Sep 4, 2013 8:11:11 AM
    Subject: Re: from Sandychatter
    To: ssmith00281@verizon.net

    Dear Sandy,
    I just found this note in my file. Did I ever answer you?
    I was a surrogate son to Nika Hazelton. She had very tenuous relationships with her two biological sons — one lived in CA, the other in England. They saw here maybe once a year, sometimes not even that. She “found” me when I was 22, just starting as a food writer, working for Newsday on Long Island, which, then, was a good newspaper. I was close to her until nearly the end — I think she died in 1991 or 2 or 3. By then we had had a major falling out — long, very personal story. She died in the nursing home she always said she wanted to go to. The Buckley family paid. She was close to them, and they were always her benefactors. She wrote a column for the National Review for many years.
    She was a very difficult woman. Very stern. Very demanding. But a good friend. She suffered very bad health, which is what we sometimes figured was the cause for her unpleasantness. But the truth is she was very Germanic (her father), more than Italian (her mother) and you had to do everything her way or else. She was also a great hostess, by the way. She knew how to mix people, and keep them amused. She was brilliant, witty, and sweet when she liked you.
    All best,
    Arthur Schwartz

    Date: Sep 4, 2013 9:38:53 AM
    Subject: Re: from Sandychatter
    To: ssmith00281@verizon.net
    Sandy,
    I learned many things from Nika, but here’s the thing I love best — when you make rice and need to hold it for awhile, put a cloth or paper towel between the pot and the cover. It’s absorbs excess moisture. Keeps the rice separate. Been doing this now for 40 years, and I still always think of Nika when I do.
    Best,
    Arthur

    Date: Sep 4, 2013 9:54:07 AM
    Subject: Re: from Sandychatter
    To: ssmith00281@verizon.net

    don’t mind at all if you credit me — I didn’t say anything untoward, I don’t think. By the way, I wrote her bio for an encyclopedia of food personality bios. Gotta find the book now.

    In a message dated 9/4/2013 12:49:44 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, ssmith00281@verizon.net writes:
    would you mind if I put your comments about Nika on the blog under the article about her? Can leave your name off if you prefer not to have it on there – but this rice thing – that’s something a lot of people would benefit from knowing–especially ME! thanks for sharing.
    Sandy

    (on a personal note–it always amazes me, the people who write, those who have known the people I have written about; we think they are forgotten but they aren’t–there are always people out there who knew and remember them often with great fondness. I know them by their books but there are many who have written to me who actually knew Nika Hazelton or Chef Szathmary or Myra Waldo…for this we have the Internet to thank and I am immensely grateful for this tool that enables me to reach a lot of people in many different places. Thank you! Today I am thanking Arthur Schwartz.

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