Karen Hess: 88, Dies; Culinary Historian Who Challenged Standards

Historians in the News

Karen Hess, an American culinary historian who brought an academic rigor to the study of recipes, cooking techniques and ordinary American kitchen practices, died Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 88.

She died after suffering a stroke the week before, her son Peter Hess said.

Ms. Hess, known as a kind but combative personality, did not shrink from taking on the icons of American cookery, who she felt presented a false picture not only of the quality of American food and cooking but also of its history.

Her first book, “The Taste of America,” written with her husband, John L. Hess, and published in 1977, established right away that the couple would not be joining the chorus of affirmation that had characterized the American food establishment.

“We write with trepidation,” the book opened. “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 book went on to lament the loss of pleasure in dining, rue the ascension of the processed food industry and attack, among others, Craig Claiborne, James Beard and Julia Child as knowing little about cooking and even less about culinary history.

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