Here’s a fascinating article I read a few moments ago by Nika Standen Hazelton. I love to cook and I had never thought of cooking in moral terms. I trust tried to make something good for family and friends. I had not considered cooking in a moral or ethical context. I’d say this is an intriguing and somewhat fun article, kind of an appetizer, if you will, about thinking about cooking. Hazelton’s ideas may be insightful the day after Thanksgiving, where many people spend hours preparing food for people they love.
March 7, 1967 12:00 A.M.
Moral Virtue in the Kitchen
Nika Standen Hazelton
This article first appeared in the March 7, 1967, issue of NATIONAL REVIEW.
As one whose fate in life has been to cook and to write about food (just as other women become charmers in peekaboo pants, virtuosi on the French horn or executives of the League of Women Voters), I am becoming increasingly annoyed at people 1) who act as if cooking well were a moral virtue, and 2) who are afraid of inviting me for a meal. The first is the most addle-pated of the many addle-pated by-products of our current vogue for gourmetmanship, for food, good or bad, has nothing to do with moral virtue. Being able to cook well has never as yet improved anybody’s character as far as I can see, and there is nothing in history to teach me that the great cooks of the past were anything but bad-tempered louts. Excellent cooks are usually willful and quarrelsome, lacking sadly in humility. Whereas great painters or singers or long-distance swimmers will give a certain amount of praise to their Maker for endowing them with the raw material of their success, great cooks attribute their merits to nothing but their own skill, intelligence and endeavor, without reflecting that a delicate palate, a sure hand and culinary imagination are as much an inborn gift as a quick eye and fast feet for tennis. The sin of pride, that’s what good cooks suffer from. And very boring it makes them too, as they preen themselves around their gigots and bearnaises, mousses and tarts.
I am not now talking of the patient daily makers of food for their families. They are indeed full of moral virtue, using their imagination in producing appetizing meals that will please very diverse tastes and keep the family healthy as well, instead of taking the attitude that really hungry people will eat week-old bread from the A & P. The bores I am talking about are the men and women who will spend hours and days at a stove fiddling with a dish and expect to be admired for doing so. Nonsense, I say; they are doing this because they’d rather cook than play bingo or read Thomas á Kempis (though he certainly would build moral virtue), and because they want to show off. The desire to please others, which would indicate a certain amount of moral virtue, barely, if at all, enters into their doings.
Now to the other thing that gets my goat: people who are afraid to ask me to dinner because they think I cook better. (The sin of pride again!) Do they really think I go to people’s houses to criticize their food? Like everybody else, I like to eat with friendly souls because it is fun to sit together, and I think that surroundings and conviviality are more important than the food itself. Surely, the food should be nice and the drinks generous, but a standard meal prettily served is more pleasant than a gourmet dish sloshed at one in the kitchen.
Anybody who cooks regularly, man or woman, is only too pleased when someone else will take the trouble of cooking for them. The very fact of sitting down to a homecooked meal with which one had nothing to do is sheer bliss. And when the hosts have taken trouble to make it a pleasant occasion, moral virtue arises like the phoenix, with spread wings and a large smile.
As a cookbook writer, I am constantly asked how I fell into the cooking bit, rather than into something else. It was a mixture of circumstances and planning. Early in youth, I had observed that my mother, God rest her soul, a Roman beauty with an attractive husband and scores of devoted admirers, invariably checked up on our cook’s daily doings at each meal. She used to take little turns at the stove, the way a painter will add a flourish to a pupil’s picture. Over the years I also observed that my mother’s beaux did not fade away, whereas those of my pretty but undomestic aunts did, leaving them with little incentive to stay pretty. When my mother was asked about her interest in cooking, she would lift her eyes to heaven in the usual Italian manner and sigh: “It is an honorable way for an honest woman to get admirers,” a sentiment I’ve seen no reason to challenge. To me, as I grew older, she never ceased to bring home the obvious truth that girls and women do not stay as pretty as they once were, and that every year, every month, every week and every day a younger and prettier number would be there, competing, competing. Thus, a lady should have other strings to her bow, and which could be better than catering to the one pleasure in life that does not pall with age — good food?
A long life in the United States has convinced me that my mother was only too right, and that I was wise to listen to her words. I never learned to cook at home, because there was no room in the kitchen for a third party besides my mother and her cook. I learned to cook on my own because I wanted to learn to please, and I know that any female who can read and who is willing to invest a little time in learning can do as much. My words of advice to any young woman would be to learn to cook a few dishes well. Or at least, to make like she can cook, since even fervent non-cooks admit that in certain situations a home meal may prove the clincher. There are a few rules to this: Never go near a delicatessen — even the roast beef is a dead giveaway. But a rotisserie chicken does not betray its origin, and it is easy to make a lettuce salad. The various casserole kitchens are a gold mine for a non-cook, but as an added precaution, it is wise to transfer the contents of the boughten casseroles into one’s own. Remember ladies, good cooks are the anchors to whom rich, middle-aged, widowed or divorced and cynical men fasten their shattered lives. And what’s wrong with that?