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
• CLASSIC SCANDINAVIAN COOKING, 1965, 1987 Galahad Books
• THE SWISS COOKBOOK, 1967 Atheneum Publishers
• HOUSE OF INDIA COOKBOOK, 1967, co-authored with Syed Abdullah.
• DINNER AT BUCKINGHAM PALACE, 1972, by Charles Oliver FORWARD by Nika Hazelton
• I COOK AS I PLEASE, 1974, Grosset & Dunlap
• NIKA HAZELTON’S WAY WITH VEGETABLES, 1976 , republished 1995 by Castle Books
• AMERICAN HOME COOKING, 1980, Viking Press
• NIKA HAZELTON’S PASTA COOKBOOK, 1984, Ballantine Books
• THE COOKING OF GERMANY (Food of the World Series)
• 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
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



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  6. Nika was a friend of mine and an adopted mother to my ex-husband. We ate and Harold and Nika’s almost every week, and every single dinner — simple, plain food, yes — was elegantly presented and well-thought through. The guests were expected to sit as the table was cleared (god forbid you STACKED the dishes!) and yes, she did her dishes by hand, and she did them herself — guests were forbidden from the kitchen for that task. I seriously doubt she had her tea-towels hand laundered – she and Harold were on serious pensions and had no health insurance. Bill Buckley paid many of their hospital bills, and, I suspect, supplemented their income in exchange for the columns in the N.R. Her son, Tony, died a few years back, so as far as I know, only Julian is still alive.

    She– and Harold — were true gems.

    • Oh, Chris – I have goosebumps up and down my arms right now. Out of all the cookbook authors I have written about, Nika was and still is one of my very favorites and no one who knew her has written to me until now. I can’t even tell you how much this means to me. Like Louis Szathmary, Nika Hazelton is someone I wish I could have known. I think I have most (if not all) of her books. In one of them she writes about how she entertained and I think she even wrote that she handwashed dishes – I think of that all the time because I dont have a dishwasher either, and its time well spent reflecting on other things. I can’t thank you enough for writing. You just gave me a precious gift, a connection to someone I have admired for a very long time. thank you! thank you! – Sandy

    • I, too, knew Nika and Harold. They were my ex-husband’s adopted parents, too. Somehow, probably because I insisted as long as I did not STACK the dishes, I was allowed to help clear the table after I finally gave her a long, hard, look one evening and said, I am happy to do it. She understood where I was coming from — her debilitating arthritis made following her rules difficult. “You may,” she said, “but no one ELSE.”

      You never knew who would be invited for dinner, just as if she invited you out for lunch, you never knew where you were going. One of my fondest memories was lunch at the Four Seasons – going up in the service elevator because by then she was on crutches – and being seated with none other than James Beard. It was enough to turn a young girl’s head!

      And Tony, her son. I loved that man! He took me for Mr. Toad’s wild ride through London in one of his prized Porsches. I loved his personal touch to his flat — the seating was very definitely automotive!

      I miss them all. Nika, Harold, Tony and my ex-husband. Somewhere out there there is a grand, but simple, meal being served and a lot of laughter.

      For what it is worth, the ONLY cook book of hers that I have is a treasured copy of From Nika Hazelton’s Kitchen, given to me when it was published. I use it all the time.

      • Dear Christina,
        I live for messages like yours. It repeatedly confirms and validates what Nika herself wrote about in her books. I have “From Nika Hazelton’s Kitchen” and I think it was perhaps her very finest collection of recipes and memoirs. When I am reading her cookbooks, I am reminded of my own paternal grandmother who loved to cook and bake and doted on all of her grandchildren. Nika reminds me of her. – Thank you for writing! – Sandy

  7. Nika was my Grandmother I have a dedication in her “Hamburger” book (I am the “little Julian”) She has 4 grandchilderen. Melissa, Amy, Sophie and myself. I have a lot of fond food and travel related memories of her.

    For a time my parents lived across the hall in Riverside Drive and I would go and have toast and Jam with Harold for breakfast aged 5 or so.. Nika always typing away in the background.

    She wrote about a Fire Island picnic in one chapter of her “Picnic” book. I was an attendee. We summered on Fire Island for at least one or two summers in the mid 60’s. It was fun. My mother and I would catch ‘blow-fish’ and fry their tiny fillets in butter. But one day by accident we caught a huge conger eel. This was scary and two passing fishermen had to help us land the monster and it only stopped trying to bite us once it was chopped into about 4 pieces with a machete (but even then it made an effort) We brought our catch home to show off and Nika announced to all that she would cook it up for us. (it languished in the bottom of the refrigerator until the end of the summer I think…!)

    When I was 10 she came to London where we had relocated. She took me to Overtons (a famous London oyster bar in Chelsea) and after much pleading on my side, ordered an oyster for me. Of course I hated it! But when I went to wash it’s foul taste down with a sip of Coke, she shocked me by slapping my hand hard – saying “you dont drink Coca-Cola with oysters!” (I appreciate that now of course..) I never did get that sip of Coke untill much later in the meal!

    In the early 1970’s we spent 3 summers in Tuscany in a cottage she rented from the elegant Count Renzo Passerini who lived in his palazzo across the vally, just below the hiltown of Cortona. As well as her friend the count and his lovely British wife Lindell we had several interesting visitors to the cottage, a monk (who ate a lot) and from that visit I learned that the Italian slang for gnocchi meant literally ‘priest chokers’ (to fill visiting clergymen up cheaply) and Germaine Greer, who was terrific company. We also had lunch at the palazzo and afterwards I got to play the prototype video game Pong with the Count.

    Nika got in a local woman cook for us at the cottage every day (the bustling “Isolina”).She would slather fresh caught rabbit, potatoes and rosemary from the garden with olive oil of the quality that never left the region or got close to a commercial bottle with a lable, slow cooking it to sublime perfection. And Isolina made pizza for us. We had wine delivered in a huge round glass flaggon (up to a man’s knee) it had no cork, instead there was inch thick layer of olive oil in the top part of the neck to keep the wine ‘corked’. A bundle of dried hemp was supplied, tied to the neck to soak up the oil.

    One summer the whole vally caught fire, (arsonists were suspected) it was scary but at the same time the blazing hills were a beautiful site in the dark evening. The young volunteer firemen took a break and a few glasses of wine with us. Then went back to work trying to stop the spread.

    After a night out we retuned to find a large black scorpion on the cottage’s livingroom wall, one by one we changed our minds about volunteering to dispatch it. This left Nika who called us all silly, then fetched some newspaper and a hammer. (at this time she had a walking stick, walked with difficulty and had very thick glasses) She put the newspaper over the beast than whacked away at it. Well it started to make its way out of the top of the newspaper wadge! – so this left Nika whacking away and about 8 of us writhing about and screaming for her to watch out, convinced the scorpion was going to kill her then do for us as well! (I still dont like scorpions after that)

    I have inherited her love of food, and my sons are fans of salami, pasta-pesto and exotic food.

    Nika spent her early days gadding around what was the precursor to the united nations as a journalist.

    Somewhere I have a fun photo of her aged 12 or so in traditional swiss costume ready it seems, to go on a hike.

    I loved making her laugh, (she was a tough audience) Harold, her 2nd husband was a terrific person. Between them they had those old time accents you hear in black and white ‘society’ movies – American but almost completely British sounding.

    Fond memories,

    Her diamond engagement ring was given to me, it had a white gold band that didnt suit my wife so we had a gold one fitted to it. It’s much admired. The white gold band was remade into a simple thin band, which I wear as I type this.

    Never forgotten,

    (little) Julian
    London, UK

    • Oh, Julian! What a wonderful message about Nikita and your memories of your childhood with her–I hope a lot of my blog subscribers read this….I thorougly enjoyed every bit of it, even about the black scorpion-poor thing escaped the fire but not your grandmother! Thank you SO much for writing!! Most sincerely, Sandra@sandychatter

      • Hi Sandy

        If at all possible please spell check/ correct my comment. I am a tad dyslexic!!


        Jules Standen

      • will do although I didn’t notice any glaring errors. Everybody misses some of them. – Sandy

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