Before Marion Nestle, before Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, Hess and her husband, John, wrote about the straight-to-hell direction in which they saw American food headed, especially the meat, poultry, and produce that the average cook could find in a regular market. Their book, The Taste of America (The Food Series), published in 1977 and described by Bakerina as a “passionate, furious, though ultimately hopeful philippic,” should be on every food writer’s shelf of useful and inspirational reads. (A newly updated version is now available, complete with fresh slap shots at Gourmet’s Ruth Reichl, among others.) In fact, I’d trade one of Hess’s tart, scrupulously researched tirades for a whole pile of the more lionized M.F.K. Fisher’s rhapsodic but dated me-me-me memoirs. Hess took her anger at the growth of American agribusiness, the denaturing of our produce, and the dumbing-down of our cultural and gastronomic palates, and wrote polemics with style. Her books weren’t cozy, but they made you think.
I read The Taste of America for the first time in 2000, having spent years picking it up and almost immediately putting it down upon reading that the authors had harsh words for the reigning culinary lions of the time: Julia Child, James Beard and Craig Claiborne.
The Hesses weren’t interested in making friends; they were after the truth as they saw, tasted, and read it, and if they took down a few well-loved icons along the way, well, that was the cost of getting it right according to their lights. Known for their facility in ferreting out original source material from antique cookbooks and historic documents, they had no patience for the ersatz. (I still remember their dryly amused tone in pointing out that Martha Washington, supposedly the author of a recipe for “authentic” Mount Vernon gingerbread, would hardly have been using margarine, invented in France in 1870.)
But despite Ms. Hess’s occasionally cranky tone, there were invaluable lessons to be learned from her outlook. Bakerina, weighing her own love of Ms. Child with her respect for Ms. Hess, admits,
I cannot take all of Mrs. Hess’s culinary proscriptions—she would be horrified by the presence of Heinz ketchup and HP sauce in my fridge—but I can take her core message to all would-be cooks and students of food history: Learn from where your dishes came; learn from where you came; study the work of those that came before you, not only because it’s useful but because it’s just plain fun, and strive for honesty and care in your own work. I’ll say it again: there is room in one’s canon for both Julia Child and Karen Hess, and I wish that they could both still be here.