It’s hard not to admire Nika Standen Hazelton, an outspoken and opinionated food writer who, despite the 30 or so cookbooks she wrote, quipped that “… cookbooks are mostly bought as escape literature, not to cook from … .”
Very much a prophetess!
Born in Rome in 1908, to a German diplomat father and Italian mother, Nika – like many food writers – began her career as anything but. After graduating from the London School of Economics, she began working as a journalist in 1930 covering the League of Nations, married, and then moved to the United States in 1940. She divorced her first husband in 1954 and remarried in 1956, to Harold Hazelton, a genealogist and advertising writer who died in November 1991.
In 1976, her book – The Unabridged Vegetable Cookbook – received the R. T. French Tastemaker Award in the specialty cookbook category. Her writings on food and cooking also appeared in numerous magazines and other publications, including The New Yorker, Family Circle, Vogue, The Virginia Quarterly, The National Review, The New York Times, and Harper’s Bazaar. One article in particular that ought to be required reading is “Cooking the Books,” in which she questioned Diana Kennedy’s claim that there were regional cuisines in Mexico. She wrote, “I may be wrong, but I was not told how the cuisines differ.”
Altogether, she wrote over thirty cookbooks, most dealing with European or American cooking. In addition, she co-authored several cookbooks with other authors, including the House of India Cookbook with Syed Abdullah in 1967 and The Russian Tea Room Cookbook with Faith Stewart-Gordon in 1981. Ms. Hazelton also served as an editor for the Woman’s Encyclopedia of Cookery, along with Eileen Tighe et. al.
I first came across Ms. Hazelton through The Cooking of Germany, a volume in Time-Life’s prescient Foods of the World series. Then, in a small shop in Grindelwald, Switzerland, I spotted one of her books that I just needed to have, The Swiss Cookbook. A few minutes before, I’d finished eating a sublime R’oshti served outdoors, on a rustic restaurant’s patio, perched precariously on stilts, neck-and-neck with a steep drop, ogling a mountain view worth selling my soul to the Devil for.
As with many independent, no-nonsense women, Nika Hazelton’s opinions pepper her books.
Although she raised two sons, I didn’t quite know what to make of her attitude toward children and food, but I chalked it up to a certain Old World attitude, the “seen but not heard” mentality. According to what she wrote about her kitchen in New York City:
“It is by no means a display kitchen where I celebrate with imported cookware or run a cooking school. Nor is it a family kitchen where the folks gather for warmhearted meals. Family meals with children 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… .”
About washing dishes – of course, she didn’t own a dishwasher – she stated emphatically:
“As I wash up, under running hot water, I muse about any number of subjects. Dishwashing is much better for musing than lying in one’s bath or in bed… .”
Not entirely, but I tend to agree somewhat. There’s something rather magical and thought-provoking about the contact of my hands with the almost-scalding hot water, the scent of slippery dish soap, and avian life unfolding outside my kitchen window.
Later, and I suspect at the time I was pawing through some books at a Friends of the Library book sale or a used book store, I discovered Ms. Hazelton’s American Home Cooking in a stack of tattered cookbooks. It fell open to a well-stained section of pancake recipes. Since I find most pancakes to be a bit stodgy, I bought the book for a quarter on the spot. And, yes, I soon learned why there was a good reason for the stains and spatters on those pages.
According to her obituary, written by Molly O’Neill for The New York Times on April 17, 1992, Ms. Hazelton put her foot down when a group of wine writers in New York prodded her for information about the rare white truffles and esoteric wines of Italy:
“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.”
And that was her mission, her quest as it were.
The following is a fairly complete and accurate listing of her books:
Reminiscence and Ravioli (1946)
The Art of Cheese Cookery (1949)
The Continental Flavor (1961)
The Art of Danish Cooking (1964)
Classic Scandinavian Cooking (1965)
American Home Cooking (1967)
International Cookbook (1967)
The Swiss Cookbook (1967)
The Picnic Book (1969)
The Cooking of Germany (1973)
I Cook as I Please (1974)
Raggedy Ann and Andy’s Cookbook (1975)
What Shall I Cook Today? (1975)
American Wines (1976)
The Unabridged Vegetable Cookbook (1976)
The Belgian Cookbook (1977)
French Home Cooking (1979)
The Italian Cookbook (1979)
Family Circle Recipes America Loves Best (1982)
The Regional Italian Kitchen (1983)
Nika Hazelton’s Pasta Cookbook (1984)
From Nika Hazelton’s Kitchen (1985)
Best of Italian Cooking (1989)
Ups and Downs: Memoirs of Another Time (1989)
Nika Hazelton’s Way with Vegetables (reprinted 1995)
*Note: This month of Women’s History, I’m featuring several women whose names might be fading in the flurry of food-related social media and the extreme focus on the so-called “influencers.” This is the last in the series.