Culinary History

Posted on October 23, 2018 in Archives

Mikel and I on our balcony in Bulgaria.

October 23, 2018; Washington DC:

I’m in DC visiting my husband, who is working here until next June when we will head back overseas with the Peace Corps. I’ve been downsizing for the past year: I gave my papers and some of my library to the Special Collections at the College of Charleston; I gave the bulk of my culinary and history library to the state-of-the-art International Culinary Institute of Myrtle Beach; I am selling much of my art collection; and I am preparing to transfer the responsibilities of my business, Hoppin’ John’s, to a younger family member.  It’s simply a matter of retirement and downsizing (I’m 69 and we will be living in an apartment in a Third World country for the next five years).

Imagine my surprise, then, when I received the following email from Cathy Kaufman, the Chairman of the Culinary Historians of New York, who have been planning a Tribute to Karen Hess, the culinary historian who was my mentor:

Hi John,

As part of the tribute to Karen, CHNY would like to recall her legacy by presenting you with our Amelia Award, given for outstanding contributions in the field of culinary history. Karen was the first recipient of the award, and it is given on a sporadic basis when our arbitrary committee feels that contributions to the field deserve recognition.  You can learn more about the Amelia and prior recipients here.
It will be a brief ceremony, highlighting both your writings and your recent generosity in giving your culinary library to the International Culinary Institute of Myrtle Beach and the College of Charleston. This generosity is a hallmark of Amelia recipients and makes you an ideal recipient; it will remind everyone of the origins of the Amelia in Karen’s brilliant contributions.
I am honored beyond belief. While I understand that my contributions to the field are considered important, I have pursued culinary history only sporadically since I closed my cookbook store 20 years ago. My “generosity” is mostly me just retiring further from the field. In subsequent emails, Cathy and I decided that I should perhaps address the group gathered at the event in New York with some comments about how I became a culinary historian. It was a circuitous route. Like most people in the field, especially those of us who were early practitioners, I had studied neither history nor the culinary arts prior to my involvement (Karen was a music major). I will perhaps touch on the some of this at the event, which is being billed as “Some History behind Culinary History,” but I would prefer that the evening be a celebration of Karen, not me.
Becoming a Culinary Historian

What’s amazing to me is how REAL culinary history is now. When I first started my research in 1984, there were no schools offering degrees in the field. Other than Karen’s work, most of what had been written up until that point was done by cookbook authors who knew little about historical methodology or they were written by traditional historians who didn’t know much about food. Those historians were mostly white men who were used to describing history in terms of court cases and battles won, eschewing the daily lives of the farmers and cooks and butchers and homemakers who had kept the culture alive while the politicians roared. After all, prior to the Civil Rights Movement, the work of black people and the work of women were not considered worthy of academia.

So how did I come to the field? It was mostly through the encouragement of a handful of people, with Karen as the ringleader.

First of all, I have my parents to thank. They were both scientists – my dad was on the Manhattan Project and my mother was one of the first of the behaviorists, applying Skinner’s theories to the animal kingdom. They were adventurous travelers and gourmands. We had a wine cellar in the tiny southern town where I grew up – unheard of in the 50s. And my mother had hundreds of cookbooks long before Julia appeared in everyone’s living room.  They kept a sailboat in the Caribbean. When we traveled, our goals were the natural and man-made wonders of the world – and dining in the best places, whether they were fish camps in Cajun country or temples of haute cuisine in New York.  I remember going to New York for the World’s Fair in 1964 and dining at Nippon, the first sushi restaurant in America, as well as at Luchow’s and La Fonda del Sol. I remember what I ate, too: frog legs at Luchow’s and “Leg of Lamb roasted next to the fire” at La Fonda del Sol. I was 14. It was they who instilled in me an insatiable curiosity that demands to know the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, and HOW that are the scientist’s – and the historian’s – m.o.

When I graduated from high school, my mother gave me a set of stainless flatware and a 5-year subscription to The New Yorker.

I assumed that I would always be a visual artist. I got a Masters Degree in film but quickly learned that I was better at still photography and painting – disciplines that, like historical research and writing – you can do by yourself. In grad school, I lived in a big house with a bunch of friends. I didn’t pay rent. They all gave me money and I kept the fridge full of breakfast foods and I cooked dinner several nights/week. After graduation, I freelanced in the Caribbean, where I had sailed extensively with my parents. On every island, I noticed cultural similarities to the Lowcountry where I had grown up, mostly in the foods. I missed the perlos, the hoppin’ john, the okra, and oysters of home, so I moved to Charleston, where both of my sisters lived. Thom Tillman was a Master Chef who owned a bakery and restaurant. He hired me to do some artwork for him and we became great friends. When I invited him to dinner at my house, he was so touched, saying that no one ever had him over. That was something I came to understand myself later. People afraid to cook for me:  I, who eat everything, hot dogs and potato chips included! Thom offered me a stage for a year on the 112-foot yacht the High Spirits. We cooked dinner for Katharine Graham and the board of the Washington Post and we did the New Years Eve blowout for Jann Wenner and the staff of Rolling Stone. Thom taught me béarnaise and  bordelaise, génoise, pâté brisé, liaisons and knife skills … and  I saved my money and moved to Europe.

I freelanced as a painter and photographer, moving back and forth between Paris and Genoa, Italy, on my tourist visa. In 1982 I returned to the Lowcountry and helped my father care for my mother, who was dying of leukemia. For seven months, I read through her vast cookbook collection, which I would inherit after she died. I returned to Europe, again back and forth between Paris and Genoa. I heard about a hip new magazine beginning and I applied for the job as art director. Jean-Sébastien Stehli, the great French journalist who is currently the Editor in Chief of Madame Figaro, was the editor. It was Jean-Sébastien’s mother who had encouraged Jane Grigson, the British food writer, to write her first book. The Stehlis lived on their vast estate next to the cave where Jane and her poet husband Geoffrey spent their summers. Because we hit it off so well and because of something tasty I fed him, Jane encouraged Jean-Sébastien to hire me instead as the American liaison and food editor. My life literally changed overnight.

The magazine, Ici New York, was a French-language magazine about New York. It was stylish and hip and intellectual and artistic. Some of the best writers, designers, and journalists were involved. I moved to New York in January of 1984, and lived in a 6th-floor walk-up on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 97th Street, just a few blocks north of Nach Waxman’s newly opened Kitchen Arts & Letters, which I frequented. I’ve always been like a fish out of water in big cities, and I think the first time I talked to Nach I told him that I was going to steal his idea and open a store like his in Charleston, where Johnson & Wales had opened a culinary school.

Though I had read through my mother’s collection, which included some Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, and Alan Davidson, I knew nothing about culinary history. I’m sure I believed much of the poor history that we all had heard up until then — that tomatoes were considered poisonous until the late 19th century; that the South was always pork, pork, and more pork; that English cookery was awful; and that Italian cuisine owes its existence to Marco Polo. And then Jean-Sébastien handed me a copy of Karen’s recently released, annotated facsimile edition of The Virginia House-Wife, and asked me to interview her on the history of Thanksgiving for our November issue.

Now just prior to meeting Karen, I had been visiting friends in Newport, Rhode Island, where wealthy Charlestonians had been vacationing for  300 years. On the street outside a house — not one of the mansions, but a rather large vacation “cottage” nonetheless — there was a pile of trash — castoff furniture, books, papers — and on the pile was a handmade booklet, a three-ring binder with a hand-sewn cover, entitled Old Receipts from Old St. Johns. The booklet included photographs of Lowcountry Plantations that had been located just a few miles down the road from where I grew up, but which I knew had been for the most part flooded when a big hydro-electric project was begun in the 1920s. What was most amazing to me was that I didn’t even recognize a lot of the foods. In the unsigned preface (Prior to the 19th Amendment, the names of Lowcountry ladies appeared in print only upon their birth, marriage, and death), the author wrote, “An Epicure sighingly remarked that one of the serious calamities brought about by the surrender at Appomattox 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 soon be but a memory?”

Karen cooking a rice pie in her New York kitchen.

I showed the book to Karen, she helped me confirm its date, and she encouraged me to return to the lowcountry and research its culinary history. We became fast friends and continued to talk on the phone and to write each other regularly for the next 23 years. I did return home. And Nach allowed me to come apprentice under him to learn the trade. I opened my culinary bookstore and assumed that eventually the University of South Carolina Press, which was one of the first publishers to take on serious culinary history (It had published The Virginia House-Wife, after all), would publish my findings, which I hoped would help revive what was essentially a dead cuisine. But the reality of running a bookstore, for which I had borrowed the money, by myself,  meant that the only way I could afford to publish a book on lowcountry cooking was to get a big advance from a popular publisher and to combine my historical finds with a popular voice. Hanging out in Nach’s store, I had met so many  food writers — Paula Wolfert and Diana Kennedy and Madeleine Kamman and Elizabeth Andoh and Barbara Kafka and Nika Hazelton and Bill Neal and Richard Olney. And I knew that I needed a good editor to help me find my voice in English. I knew that I wanted Fran McCullough, who had changed cookbook publishing with the in-depth books of Paula and Diana. I really didn’t know how to write — Jean-Sébastien had been a great editor —  and Fran had been the fiction editor at Harper’s when she began publishing those books that delved into the history, folklore, and agriculture as well as the recipes.

Karen and Mikel on my bedside table.

And so it came to pass. With inspiration from my parents, Thom the chef, Jean-Sébastien, Karen, Nach, and Fran, I became a food writer in English, drawing on my research. I interviewed lots of old-timers, both black and white, who had vague memories of some of the old dishes. But the historical research wasn’t easy. Even if a historical tome had great culinary gems among its quoted letters and journals, the traditional historians might not find them worthy enough to include them in the index. And many of the food writers quoted each other ad infinitum until the “fakelore,” as Karen called it, and the undocumented claims had often become the norm. I can hear Karen now questioning my theories, as though she were saying, “Oh, yeah? Says who? What makes you say that? Where did you read that?” (Though of course her perfect diction was never so casual.)

The University of South Carolina Press actually first asked me to annotate The Carolina Rice Kitchen. But I was under contract with Fran, paying someone else to run my store while I refined my research and tested recipes. Karen took the job, only after making sure that I didn’t feel that she was encroaching on my territory. Are you kidding me, I thought?! I’ll be working in tandem with Karen Hess on lowcountry cooking! Our approaches were different: mine much more parochial than hers, having grown up in the Lowcountry, casting shrimp nets and gathering oysters from the pluff-mud banks, shooting squirrels, and eating field peas. Karen never visited the Lowcountry until after the book was published. She developed her theories from culinary, sociological, and linguistic research. We both read each other’s manuscripts twice. I had some some qualms with one of her hypotheses. Twice I protested. But she left it in. I had a huge box of hand-written letters and faxes between us, but when I went to donate my papers to the College, they had disappeared. Lost, I guess, in one of my many moves since I closed the shop in 1999.

I will forever be indebted to those seven folks who helped me become a food writer, but without Karen,  I never would have done historical research

To have drunk Champagne with her and to see her throw her head back with that riotous cackle of a laugh is one of the greatest pleasures of my life. And, like this award, a real honor.