If you crave details on the origin of Cracker Jacks or Underwood Deviled Ham, can’t seem to locate the perfect recipe for Cape Breton Pork Pies, or need a lead on the menu served at “The First Thanksgiving” of 1621, ask Lynne Olver. She’s sure to uncover the answer.
In March 1999 the Morris County New Jersey reference librarian created the website, The Food Timeline, a list of web links on food history. The citations fit neatly on one sheet of paper. More than a decade later, the site features scores of links to sources on the origins of foods and historic recipes, and Olver is a trusted resource for thousands of students, chefs, food writers and culinary historians who seek information on the topic. If you have a question on food history, she promises an answer to most questions in 48 hours, and she does the leg work for free.
Her inspiration for the website came from James Trager's The Food Chronology [Henry Holt, 1995].
“I was editing a reference newsletter in the late 1990s and thought it might be fun to feature food history sources,” she explains. “There were several excellent food history books but precious little online that was usable for reference purposes. In my profession, citing sources, especially primary sources, is critical to responsible research. When the initial timeline was uploaded, it included a handful of links to vetted sources and could be printed on one 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper. As time progressed, and questions came pouring in, it became evident that the only way to continue was to do original research and upload the content. For me, this was the ultimate convergence of professional vocation and personal passion. I was hooked!”
She seems to enjoy the thrill of the hunt, and admits she has always been naturally curious. “That's one of the reasons I became a public reference librarian,” says Olver. “We get to investigate new things every day.”
Olver is not a trained chef or an academic, but she has more food information at her fingertips than most of us encounter in a lifetime. And, with a reference librarian’s mind for details, she quickly cites the Food Timeline’s vital statistics, and notes that she rarely goes off duty.
“Librarians count everything,” says Olver. “From March 1999 to January 2010, I've answered 21,239 food history questions. Questions are cataloged and answers retained for future use. New content is uploaded weekly. Our FAQs reflect our most popular questions. Uploading them for ready access saves time for everyone. And yes, when I go on vacation I take the laptop and flash drive.”
Olver says inquiries sent to the Food Timeline have been all over the culinary map from Day One. She recalls a notable early question from an elementary school student who wanted to know what "pease porridge" was (from the Nursery Rhyme). Food Timeline questions generally fall into nine categories: requests for old recipes (Pineapple Daisy Chiffon Cake), historic company/product information (Vita Boy potato chips), general food history (bananas), recipe origins (Beef Wellington), historic menus (1960s cocktail party), period foods (Shakespeare's foods), old prices (how much did food cost in WWII Germany), famous people's favorite foods (U.S. presidents), and place-specific food traditions (St. Louis Toasted Ravioli).
She says she was drawn to the topic of food because “it is a common denominator of humanity that binds us all together.”
“Food transcends history, geography, technology, social class, and economic status,” says Olver.
The Food Timeline is divided between links that describe the “beginnings” of food, and a chronology of historic recipes.
Far from being a dusty antiquarian quest, Olver thrives in a digital world of technology and delicious data bytes.
“Technology plays a significant role preserving and sharing information in all topics,” she says. “Digitized collections have made primary materials more accessible. Databases facilitate identifying and obtaining articles from newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals. Ebay, blogs, company webs, and foodie chat boards complement standard research sources by offering product information and local history. We've been Tweeting since last April. It's a great way to share notes of popular interest and spread the word that food history information is out there! The Internet is also a great way to connect with experts. We reach out to culinary and scholarly experts regularly for assistance with complicated questions.”
She sometimes forsakes the library for work in the field. “The best part of food research is sampling dishes in their natural habitat. Dungeness Crabs in Seattle; Philly Cheese Steaks at Pat's, Fra Diavolo at Patsy's, cherry pie in Michigan, lobster rolls in Maine, wine tasting in Sonoma & Napa, experiencing the waiters at Musso & Frank's...”
Is there any piece of information, she can’t find?
“Yes,” she admits. “Among the most vexing are: (1) Definitive origin of the phrase Monkey Dish (a perennial culinary school assignment (2) What was Guildmaster Sauce (served in Pullman dining cars) (3) Who coined the phrase "Changing the Lady," (refers to chef's jackets). If any of your readers can provide these answers we’d be much obliged.”
Olver has uploaded hundreds of historic recipes. A recipe for James Beard’s Zucchini bread is a personal favorite – one of the earliest and most influential of the many zucchini bread recipes that proliferated in the 60s and 70s.
As long the world community continues to cook and eat, Olver will add links, building out The Food Timeline. She sees the project as a public service.
“I love connecting people with information,” she says. “Sharing food history is my way of giving back to the community. Over the years I've had several offers for commercial partnership and I've turned them all down. My public librarian core believes information should be available on a fair and equitable basis to everyone.”
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