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Friday, March 04, 2005

Hessian Aggression

I wonder what Martha was thinking as she passed through those prison gates one last time. Was it, "I hope I didn't leave my enemies list back in my cell"?

I know what I was thinking. I was thinking that we need someone like John Hess around to size up the food entertainment/hospitality moguls. In his book, co-authored with his wife Karen in 1977, he skewers some of the biggest names in food of that era. According to the reviews I've read, The Taste of America was a full frontal assault on the holy trinity of that time (Julia Child, Craig Clairborne, and James Beard), gourmet food, and a passionate argument for traditional American food. The titles of some of the chapters in the book speak quite bluntly for themselves: The Rape of the Palate, Colonial Eden, The Recipe Racket, and The Gourmet Plague. I can only imagine what someone like John and Karen would say now about the abundance of gratuitous food porn on TV and in "lifestyle" magazines. I wonder what dire and caustic remarks they would make upon hearing "tablescape", "kitchenscape", and "semi-homemade".

There is taste in America?

I had heard about John Hess and "the book", unfortunately, after John passed away. It was while listening to Democracy Now one day that I heard Amy quote from the book. Not believing my ears, I had to go back and re-listen. I was astonished at what I heard and knew instantly that I had to know more. This is what I heard:

Longtime journalist and radio commentator John Hess also died at the age of 87. For 24 years he worked at the New York Times. He was best known for his 1968 coverage of the Paris Peace talks, a major expose on nursing home corruption and for his writings as a food critic.

In 1977, he co-wrote a book with his wife Karen Hess titled "The Taste of America." In it they wrote "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?"

Ouch! Hello!

So, this is what I'm doing. I'm reading the book. It's fresh from the Mechanics Institute Library, although maybe fresh isn't the right word. The book had to be dug out of the basement. It hasn't been checked out since March…1994. If this book were released today, taking on such institutions as El Bulli, the French Laundry, and the Food Network, it would be a New York Times bestseller.

Hasn't been read since March 1994.

So why the disinterest? Well, perhaps a few things. One, the Mechanics Institute Library is a small, private library with a limited readership. Two, only recently has our culture become more food obsessed. When this book was released in 1977, most Americans were interested in the gas crisis, not the gastro crisis. Since then, I'm sure the number of foodies in America, both hardcore and dilettante, has grown exponentially. How else do you explain Emeril's packaged arugula in Safeway?

Perhaps the last possible reason for the book's lack of checker-outers is that just the thought of someone slamming Julia Child is enough to turn some people away. Perhaps they see it as a hit piece. Since I haven't read it, I don't know for sure. But that's precisely the point; you don't know until you read it. If a book's premise challenges one's own beliefs, some would take that as a challenge to read the book, while others would dismiss it out of hand. That's just how we are.

While I'm only beginning to read the book, one thing is already clear: If what I've read and heard is true, and John and Karen Hess were honest, knowledgeable, muckraking foodies, then we are sorely lacking in people like that today. Rachel Ray, you are soooo lucky.

Speedball Posits Profound Thoughts on the Nature Of Food and Culture.



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