Karen Hess

Posted on September 11, 2007 in Other writing

November 11, 1918 — May 15, 2007
Here’s my very personal essay about my relationship with Karen Hess, a version of which appears in the Fall 2007 Gastronomica. For more about Karen, see John’s Work.

Karen gave me this photograph of her and her beloved husband John. I’m sorry to say that I don’t know who took the photo. I also am not sure who took this other photograph of her, barefoot in her Manhattan kitchen, baking a rice pie in 1991, when the two of us were working in tandem on our books about the foods of the Carolina lowcountry.
                        Karen and Me

     Karen Hess, the recently deceased culinary historian, was my mentor and friend. We each came to food writing via circuitous routes. She had studied music at San Jose College but became a housewife and mother of three. A passionate home cook, her interest in food soared when her husband John was stationed in Paris by The New York Times for nearly a decade in the sixties and seventies. She was there when the young chefs of France began removing flour from sauces. Their cooking was at once a refinement of the haute cuisine of Escoffier, an embracing of centuries-old home cooking that relied on the freshest local produce, and a reaction to the ever-increasing industrialization of foodways. She was appalled when she returned to the States to find that Americans had not fought back against the onslaught of packaged food, shortcuts, and modernized recipes. Worse, the misinterpretation of the exciting nouvelle cuisine of France was becoming the much-joked about small portions of a newly celebrated “gourmet” cuisine, replete with nutritional analyses of recipes and ingredients. Her cry for farmers markets, organic produce, heirloom breeds, and simple perfection predated the pleas of Alice Waters by years.

     I myself was working as an artist in Paris ten years later. I had, like Karen, cooked for my board in college. Neither of us had formal training in either history or cooking, but just before I left for Europe, I convinced Thom Tillman, a demanding chef, to teach me all he could in nine months in exchange for my labor, rolling puff pastry dough, making pâtes à génoise, and washing dishes. He, like Karen (pronounced CAR-in, in the Scandinavian fashion), had grown up in a Danish household, and his rigorous standards were unfaltering. I had my face pushed into a barrel of flour more than once, a harmless punishment that he had learned at a venerable hotel school in Switzerland. 
     My parents were adventurous diners, and I had inherited from my mother, who died young, nearly 1200 cookbooks, which I had read through as she slipped away by the river’s edge in South Carolina. I helped my father care for her in her final months, and, in the end, we toasted her life with the last remaining bottle of the 1949 Chambolle Musigny that he had purchased as futures right after I was born.
     My parents aren’t exactly what I think of as southern eccentrics, but they were fiercely intelligent and extremely well educated. They believed that travel broadened one, and that food and wine were an important part of one’s education. By the time I was a teenager, I had eaten in the finest restaurants of New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco. By then, my mother, a year younger than Karen, had become an incredibly accomplished cook, always willing to experiment or to rigorously follow classical or ethnic recipes. Her own notebook of recipes, all recorded prior to 1953, includes precise instructions for Danish pastry, paella, lavash, and pizza. So, like Karen, when I moved to Europe, I had been around good food.
     After living in Genoa, Italy, for a year, I moved back to Paris, where my European journey had begun. Through my art dealers, I had heard of an exciting new magazine that was beginning. All the bright young stars of the thriving Paris art scene seemed to be involved, so I applied for the job as art director. Jean-Sébastien Stehli, the editor, and I immediately hit it off, and he was determined to hire me, in spite of the objections of Grapus, the internationally acclaimed creative collective of artists who had designed the magazine’s prototype. After several dinners at my apartment, trying to convince them, Jean-Sébastien, urged by his own mentor Jane Grigson, the great British food writer, hired me instead as the food editor and American liaison. My career changed overnight.
     I opened the offices of ICI NEW YORK, a stylish French language magazine about the city, in 1984, the year that the University of South Carolina Press released The Virginia House-Wife by Mary Randolph: A facsimile of the first edition, 1824, along with additional material from the editions of 1825 and 1828, thus presenting a complete text, with Historical Notes and Commentaries by Karen Hess. Jean-Sébastien and I interviewed Karen on the history of Thanksgiving for our November issue. Nowhere in the vast collection of cookery titles that I had inherited had I seen any sign of true scholarship, of original research, or even of the personal knowledge learned by experience that Karen’s work exuded. Our conversation went on long past the 60-minute tape cassette I had with me, wandering in and out of French and English, touching on linguistics, horticulture, animal husbandry, the Middle Ages, European court life, and American politics. Food, in Karen’s words, came alive in ways I had never considered. 
     Coincidentally, while visiting friends in Newport, Rhode Island, just prior to meeting Karen, I had quite literally stumbled upon a collection of recipes from some old plantations in the South Carolina lowcountry, where I had grown up. Someone had cleared out an old home and simply tossed its belongings on the street. Charlestonians have a long history of vacationing in Newport, so I was not surprised by the handmade book’s presence there, but what amazed me was that I could barely recognize many, if not most, of the recipes. Dating the book had been easy, because there were photos of the plantations from the early part of the twentieth century; further, I knew that most of the old houses had been flooded when a huge hydro-electric project had been built in the 1920s.
     The unidentified author wrote in the Foreword, “An Epicure sighingly remarked that one of the serious calamities brought about by the surrender at Appomatox was the disappearance of Southern Cookery. Surely this is an exaggeration, but lest it should come true, shall we not endeavor to preserve the recipes which would otherwise soon be but a memory?”
     I had brought a photocopy of the book for Karen, and as she thumbed through it, dating many of the recipes to the Victorian era, she would expound on the provenance of ingredients and techniques the way an art historian might talk about contrapposto, chiaroscuro, or the arch, or how my history teachers would go on about battles and court cases won. Only this time, the history lessons came alive for me, and reaffirmed my belief in an interdisciplinary approach to learning that I had fought for, unsuccessfully, in graduate school. (My Masters, in Film, was indeed headed by professors of journalism, art, and English, but I could never get the departments to communicate with each other, and the drama department was never invited to participate in my tutoring.)
     At that point, I had not read Karen’s other work, but I had already decided, after a year in New York, to return to South Carolina and to open a culinary bookstore. Karen and I would, for the next 23 years, work on our historical research in tandem. I never knew “Karen the Irascible.” Yes, I read her scathing jeremiads against those she considered poseurs. But she never showed me that side in person, or in the many letters she wrote me over the years, or in the hundreds of telephone conversations we had. Foremost, she was my friend.
     I called Madeleine Kamman to tell her that Karen had died. Another of the grandes dames of American food writers known for her exacting standards, Madeleine has been to me, like Karen, one of the sweetest people I know, always kind and willing to help this upstart, attentive to my ideas and tolerant of my mistakes. (See photo.) And another great cook and marvelous dining companion. She was saddened by my loss, and comforted me in ways that no one else could, reminding me that the very things that bothered Karen bothered her as well, such as the lack of curiosity in modern America, and, in particular, our abandonment of public education. When I told her that I was working with children in an inner city community garden, I could feel her glow over the phone. I had heard that same glow just less than two weeks ago in Karen’s phone voice, the day before she had her stroke. The day before she made a big pot of black beans with both ham and bacon. 
     Those phone calls are what I will miss most. And that boisterous whoop and cackle of joy that those who have sipped champagne with Karen Hess know so well. 
     I was always in awe of her, but I never feared her. She loved nothing more than a sparring partner, someone who would challenge her hypotheses or enlighten her about some corner of culinary history that she hadn’t uncovered. She loved to learn new words, to shop at the New York Greenmarkets she had championed, to eat in the small Sicilian restaurant in her neighborhood that she was afraid would be discovered. She kept promising to take me there, but I am almost never in New York. The last time I was, it was a blistering hot day in July and Karen and I were filmed in a half-hour conversation in her unairconditioned apartment. We were supposed to go to the restaurant, but it was just too damned hot. It was the only time I’ve been with Karen that we didn’t have a celebratory glass or two of champagne. She was sad. Her husband John had died. In tears, she once said to me, “We were soul mates longer than you’ve been alive, for heaven’s sake!” She made raspberry sorbet with her big new Italian ice cream machine that she was inordinately proud of. With a touch of champagne. But it was just too hot to eat.
     “We had hoped to take you to our favorite little restaurant,” her son Pete, whom I would come to be friends with, said.
     Karen added, “It’s not Italian, Love, but Sicilian.”
     Love. That’s what she called me.