A Tribute to Karen Hess

A movement matriarch.

One of the best things about Manhattan is how living legends can move among us while we mortals pretend we don’t notice them. Karen Hess — every Friday morning at our neighborhood Greenmarket on West 97th Street, wearing her signature straw hat and Birkenstocks and, toward the end, pushing a cart festooned with an “Impeach Bush” sign.

And I always knew better than to approach her and blurt out my admiration for her work, especially her ultimate scathe of how this country chooses to feed itself, the one with the game-changing line: “The taste of the seasons is gone.”

Listening to even her admirers assess her career now, I’m pretty sure I dodged a cannonball. This was the woman who transliterated cookbooks from Martha Washington, Amelia Simmons, Hannah Glasse and Mary Randolph, the undersung mothers of American cuisine, and who made a mission of giving African-American cooks their due in her 1998 book The Carolina Rice Kitchen.

In Taste of America, the Hesses, palates and perspectives transformed by nine years in Paris while he was deployed for the New York Times, covered our fall from agricultural Eden to industrialized near-wasteland. (Pictured with Greenmarket farmer Nestor Tello.) Photo courtesy of GrowNYC

Even more important, she was the woman who, with her husband, John L. Hess, way back in 1977, indicted the entire food system in The Taste of America. That blistering book plowed the field for the likes of Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser to reap nearly three decades on. Moreover, without the Hesses, today’s urbanites might not be showered with just-picked corn and basil, leaf lard and grassfed beef—because there might very well have been no Greenmarket.

But Karen Hess, who died in 2007 at the age of 88, did not suffer wannabe food scholars gladly, let alone neighborly fools. Descriptions by people who knew her range from the mild “opinionated” to the more bruised-sounding “merciless.” Even her admirers at our market volunteer that she was rough and gruff in her insistence on seriousness with all things food-related. As the oldest of her three children, Peter Hess, says: “She cut an imposing figure. She found her voice and wasn’t afraid to use it.” And she used it to promote real food and honest cooking donkey’s years before the word “locavore” was ever inflicted on the world.

Hess was a rigorous scholar on the history of American cuisine, but her first book is best known because it was so contentious. In Taste of America, the Hesses, their palates and perspectives transformed by nine years in Paris while John Hess was deployed there for the New York Times, covered the fall of the food scene from agricultural Eden to industrialized near-wasteland. The first sentences were quoted in both their obituaries in the Times: “We write with trepidation. How shall we tell our fellow Americans that our palates have been ravaged, that our food is awful, and that our most respected authorities on cookery are poseurs?”

The couple railed about what I call processed crap, about food writers endorsing the same, about travel writers on the take, about the way nutrition nuttiness skewed people’s taste away from fresh food. And they spared no acid in attacking any big name they determined might be contributing to the decline and collapse of kitchen civilization. Craig Claiborne was guilty of “feckless condescension,” Julia Child “calls herself the French Chef though she is neither French nor a chef.” They make Anthony Bourdain come off like a capon by comparison.

“The truth is that good food in America is little more than a memory, and a hope,” the Hesses wrote. “Americans have been mouth-washed by generations of bad food and brain-washed by generations of bad advice about food, culminating in the gourmet plague. So if we are to recapture the joy of good eating, we must free our palates from their daily glop, and our minds from entrenched myths.”

For anyone more accustomed to Pollan’s gentle voice, the book can feel painfully shrill, but it offered prescriptions as well as indictments. “From the beginning of civilization, towns have been fed by the surrounding countryside,” the Hesses wrote. “The produce followed the seasons, which did not rule out an extraordinary variety, as Thomas Jefferson’s market list shows. What farmers picked in the cool morning was on the citizens’ tables within half a day.”

And their book, along with John Hess’s writing in the New Yorker and John McPhee’s books, inspired and exhorted Barry Benepe to found the Greenmarkets. In their last chapter, titled “Hope,” they advocated for small farms both for better food and for preservation of land that would otherwise be developed, and they described both the revival of a farmers market in Syracuse and the loss of farmers markets in New York City. Benepe met with them about his plan to apply for a grant to study whether a comeback of the markets would be possible. But John Hess thundered: “You don’t need a study. You need farmers markets.”

“She and John didn’t sit back and wait for things to happen,” Benepe says. “They made things happen.” He describes John as the godfather and Karen as the guardian angel of the Greenmarkets.

June Russell, currently the farm inspector for the Greenmarkets, got to know Hess when she worked as manager of our neighborhood market from 2005 to 2006. “The Hesses were prescient, they saw what we were losing,” Russell says. “Karen called it like she saw it. She was really provocative.”

Anne Mendelson, whose books include Stand Facing the Stove, a history of Joy of Cooking, notes that before Taste of America, very few food writers “thought it was important to tell good food from bad food, even those of us with a scholarly approach to food. Then Karen started taking it seriously.” Not surprisingly, she was one of the original members of the Culinary Historians of New York, in 1985.

Food historian Andrew L. Smith says Taste was the book that taught Karen Hess to do research using original sources, rather than repeat “fakelore”—instead of working from what others had written about Amelia Simmons and Hannah Glasse, she went straight to the source. The book, he adds, “changed my life—I had a job not related to food, and the heritage standpoint was the major reason I started writing about food.” He is now the editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, which will include an entry on Karen Hess in the forthcoming edition.

“Her Martha Washington manuscript [an annotated edition of the family cookbook] was published by Columbia in 1980, literally before anyone was doing serious food history,” Smith says. “She started early and tried to be scholarly, and she didn’t like the big people who got visibility.” (Can you say James Beard?)

Hess was born Karen Loft in 1918 in Blair, Nebraska, the daughter of a Lutheran minister, and Danish was her first language (she pronounced her name as Scandinavians do: KARRin). She described her girlhood as “one long round of competition among women of the congregation to impress the pastor with their culinary artistry. They were all fine cooks and bakers, most kept cows, chickens and gardens…the pastor was well-fed.”

Karen Hess and her husband, John, called for the founding of the city’s Greenmarket system. Until her death in 2007 at the age of 88, she could be seen every Friday at the market on West 97th Street. Photo by June Russell

She studied voice at what is now Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, (but didn’t graduate) and always dreamed of being a singer. Instead, she met and married John Hess while living in Salt Lake City; after they moved here in 1941, Hess went to work for newspapers, and in 1965 the Times sent them to Paris.

She was always a good cook, her son says, believing in “the elegance of simplicity” and earning room and board in college by cooking in people’s homes. She had even become adept at Chinese cuisine while living in San Francisco. But exposure to French ingredients and kitchen history altered her reality, and she and John started to write about food. Peter Hess says her approach was more pragmatic before Paris, more intellectual afterward. As her bios on her book covers never fail to note, Newsweek once called her “the best American cook in Paris.” Through the Times connections, she met chefs and non-chefs. (Can you say Julia Child?)

“I heard they had a wonderful time and were not happy to come back” when a new bureau chief was named, says Mimi Sheraton, one of John Hess’s successors as Times restaurant critic. “I’m not sure they ever got over leaving Paris… . They began to hate people.”

Back in Manhattan, the Hesses bought the classic six at 101st Street and Riverside Drive where they would write their books and live out the next decades, eating once a week in their last years at Gennaro’s on Amsterdam Avenue near 93rd Street.

John Martin Taylor, a historian who also runs a Southern- foods business called Hoppin’ John, cannot say enough positive things about Hess’s impact on his life and career. “She has a reputation of being very irascible because she dared speak out against Julia Child and James Beard and Craig Claiborne, using their own words,” he said by phone from his new home in Bulgaria. “But she and I were very, very close. She never was that way with me. She was so sweet to me.”

Taylor says Hess even took well his challenges to her conclusions in the Carolina rice book she researched and wrote after he provided her with a very old Low Country cookbook he had stumbled upon. “She loved me as a sparring partner,” he says. But he adds that while he admired her dedication and her perseverance to her work, “she would get an idea and do research to support it—she would say, ‘This is my theory and this is why I believe it.’”

According to Nach Waxman, owner of Kitchen Arts & Letters, the cookbook mecca on the Upper East Side: “What her legacy really is is that combination of vigorous, almost rigorous adherence to the original text and original cultural circumstances. She was making sure people saw it as it was intended to appear, as it was meant to be read, then presented it in a way that was almost unobtrusive.

And she had zero tolerance for food historians who did not adhere to her rigid standards. Waxman, who also often saw Hess at our neighborhood Greenmarket, says he always remembers her “striding into the store, walking over to our lead shelf, finding one of the more obscure scholarly books, picking it up and flipping through it, then turning to us and saying: ‘You know, this is a very good subject. But it’s not treated as a serious subject.’ I think she believed some of the farmers were not serious, either.”

(June Russell says Hess once told her “You seem serious,” the best compliment she’s ever gotten.)

Sandy Oliver, a food writer in Maine who founded Food History News, learned to expect to hear from Hess after every issue of the newsletter was published. “She would write me long letters and send things she had written on the same subjects. She was constantly fine-tuning, and I learned a lot from her. But I got beat up. She was merciless in her comments.”

“Every time I bumped into something I’d never heard about,” Oliver adds, “I’d find she had thought of it years ago. She was so well-versed…. But there was nothing genteel about her. If she thought you didn’t get it, you were an idiot.”

Nebraska-born but a longtime resident of Riverside Drive, Hess transliterated cookbooks from Martha Washington, Amelia Simmons, Hannah Glasse and Mary Randolph, the undersung mothers of American cuisine. Photo by Steven Mays

(Mimi Sheraton remembers Hess would write very long corrective letters to the New York Times and “after the envelope was sealed would write around it with more.”)

Stephen Schmidt, a food writer and prolific cookbook author in Manhattan, agrees that Hess was very opinionated but adds: “She was very helpful to me. I sent her a rather lengthy piece [on the history of English pudding] and she read it and did not rip it to shreds and tell me I was an idiot. She was supportive and generous. A lot of people wouldn’t take the time to do that.”

Anne Mendelson also says Hess “was incredibly generous to novices like me trying to learn this discipline she pioneered.” But she adds: “She could spend endless time in research libraries; she didn’t understand food writers who had to toil in the New York Times vineyards. She greeted their every error with outrage. She behaved like someone put on this planet to besmirch the unworthy— j’accuse! j’accuse! No one was ever forgiven. If a writer screwed up, she would still be denouncing her 20 years later.

“She never attacked me in print,” continues Mendelson, “but she cut off the relationship after Joy. The hatred boiled over when I wrote about Irma [Rombauer]. She would have preferred that I write that Joy of Cooking had shown the decline in American cooking and how we got to our sorry state.”

Hess’s rigidity is part of the reason her last manuscript, a masterwork on Thomas Jefferson and the food at Monticello, is still unpublished, Mendelson and others say. “Karen shot herself in the foot. This could have been her magnum opus, but instead she insisted on settling all scores and made the Monticello people very unhappy.”

Peter Hess says the manuscript is in biblio-limbo while he and his sister Martha settle the estate, but Andy Smith says he is doing all he can to get it published, as he promised Hess in her last days. “I reviewed the manuscript, and 95 percent is material not available elsewhere unless you go to a number of museums.”

The same can be said of Taste of America, which laid out all the dots now being connected in the food movement three and a half decades later. Unfortunately the New York Public Library no longer has copies to check out, only to be read there, and the book will cost you $33.95 at Kitchen Arts & Letters. But the 25th-anniversary edition includes a priceless foreword, noting “the Hesses are eating better than in 1975, when we had to bake our own bread and roast our own coffee.”

And the whole book is worth reading to see how far our “starving for flavor” country has come. Just consider that the Hesses lamented a generation ago: “In the old Washington Market, in tomato time, one could find ripe fruit, tart, sweet and bursting with juice. Reactionaries, dedicated to the taste of the real thing, would eat tomatoes only in season…. We can have tomatoes year-round, but now we cannot buy tomatoes worth eating at any time of year. Nor strawberries. In fact, we can no longer tell the difference between tomatoes and strawberries.”

But this summer, weather willing, New Yorkers can revel in Cherokee purple heirloom tomatoes and Tristar strawberries with juice to spare.

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Regina Schrambling is a longtime food writer who left an editing job at the NYT to train at the New York Restaurant School, freelanced for magazines for 15 years, returned to the NYT for 46 months as deputy editor of the Dining section and then happily returned to freelancing. Her cat eats extremely well.