November 11, 1918, a date familiar to all students of history, as The Great War (to end all wars) was finally at an end. But for students of culinary history, that date has additional significance: it is the birth day of Karen Hess, who would become one of the earliest American culinary historians and mentor to a generation culinary historians as the field slowly took shape in the last quintile of the twentieth century.
As a tribute to Karen, the culinary luminaries Dr. Jessica Harris, John Martin Taylor, Anne Mendelson, and Andy Smith gathered to discuss their experiences with Karen and how she has influenced their approach and that of others to culinary history. When Karen published (with her husband, John) The Taste of America in 1977, she turned a gimlet eye on the sad state of American cookery and took on such beloved culinary icons as James Beard and Julia Child, whom she considered poseurs, with the latter neither French nor a Chef, despite the name of the hugely popular cookbook that Child had co-authored. The Taste of America won her few friends, but set the stage for her work delving into American cookery with a scholar’s zest for detail and with an open mind, studying every bit of evidence and looking for the overlooked.
Mendelson opened the evening of remembrances. Trained as a Chaucer scholar who could spend many hours debating the fine points of Middle English, Mendelson was a journalist and had somehow landed reviewing “mere” cookbooks, something that had never occurred to her should be considered a “serious” genre. She accepted common fakelore (such as the seeming apocryphal story of folks gathering on the courthouse steps of Salem, New Jersey in 1820 to watch Robert Gibbon Johnson expire from eating a tomato, thought to be poisonous) without question, as it was “only” food. When she was given the task of reviewing The Taste of America, she saw that at least one person–Karen Hess- would not buck sloppiness in culinary matters. After Mendelson’s positive review appeared, Mendelson saw Karen at a restaurant; she introduced herself and they quickly became colleagues. When Karen’s critical study of Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery appeared, Mendelson recognized the same scholarly rigor in Karen’s patient decoding of the 17th century hand and language that Mendelson herself devoted to Chaucer. For Mendelson, Karen set a standard of scholarship that had been missing from culinary literature.
Andy Smith and John Martin Taylor both spoke of Karen’s extraordinary generosity in encouraging their careers. Smith simply found Karen’s name in the White Pages (remember those?) and called her up; the spoke for many hours about some of his budding work on the history of tomatoes. When she critiqued a recipe that he had included in one of his books (something he had hand-copied from the Rare Book Room of the New York Public Library), Smith went back to check and, sure enough, Karen was correct: he had omitted a few (perhaps inconsequential) bits of punctuation. When Karen was still dissatisfied with his hand-written version, Smith returned to the library, cajoled the Rare Books Librarian into making a photocopy to prove to Karen that his revised version was accurate: when he triumphantly showed her the photocopy, she laughed uproariously. She had never actually seen the rare book from which he copied the recipe, but she had sensed that his original version was wrong, so deep was Karen’s understanding of recipes.
The Virginia Housewife, Karen had become increasingly sensitive to the contributions of enslaved cooks to the running of colonial and new nation homes and the special culinary expertise they brought. When Taylor, already a prominent culinary authority in Charleston, declined to edit a critical edition of The Carolina Rice Kitchen for the University of South Carolina Press because of other commitments, he recommended Karen for the task. It was in this seminal book, subtitled “The African Connection,” that Karen shone a light on the too-often unacknowledged role of the enslaved cooks in shaping the legendary gracious hospitality of the Old South.
It was this acknowledgement that resonated with Harris, whose work has focused on performance and the transient. Unlike Karen, whose rigor depended in large part on language and ‘hard’ evidence, Harris deals with the “silences,” to fill in the gaps of African culinary diaspora. Yet although their approaches have differed, Harris fondly recalled the many joyous excursions with Karen (especially one in New Orleans that included Barbara Ketcham Wheaton) where, along with Harris’s mother, these three grand dames of culinary history exchanged ideas and information about complicated footways, all with the spirit of open scholarship (and a few cocktails to lubricate the discussions). By the end of the evening, we all could sense how pivotal Karen Hess was in nurturing the first generation of culinary scholars in America, among them our two recipients of Amelia Awards.