Karen Hess Put Food on America's Academic Table

Food historian Karen Hess died this month at the age of 88. Hess dedicated much of her life to researching the food of colonial America. In 1981 she published, Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery. She died while finishing a book on Thomas Jefferson's table.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Here's something you probably didn't know about Thomas Jefferson.

Mr. ANDREW SMITH (Editor, "The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink"): He had a pasta machine for making macaroni at Monticello.

ELLIOTT: That was a fact uncovered by the intrepid food historian Karen Hess. She died earlier this month at the age of 88 while finishing her latest work, "Mr. Jefferson's Table."

Hess is credited with making food history a legitimate academic pursuit. Her first foray into the field began with the publication of the 1977 book, "The Taste of America."

Mr. SMITH: And the book itself started with, you know, what happened to American food and why is it so bad.

ELLIOTT: That's Andrew Smith, editor of The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. He was a close friend of Hess'.

Mr. SMITH: Karen Hess and her husband, John, lived in Paris for almost a decade. And they fell in love, obviously, with the cuisine and certainly with the bread. And when they came back to the United States in the mid-1970s, they asked questions what happened to American bread?

ELLIOTT: Hess critiqued American food and America's popular chefs, including Julia Child. She chastised Child and others for their lack of knowledge about the origins of their dishes.

Mr. SMITH: I think that's part of her message too. It was that you eat history everyday.

ELLIOTT: For Hess, recipes were primary source documents that gave clues into the past. She went on to research early American colonial cooking. Hess had spent the past 10 years researching her book on Thomas Jefferson's table. She died of a stroke on May 15th.

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