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  • How can I research the favorite foods of a famous person?
  • How do I become a food historian?
  • Which colleges offer courses/degrees in food history?
  • Who uses the Food Timeline research service & why?
  • Food Timeline FAQs
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  • Who is Lynne Olver?
  • Food history research tips & basic strategies
    What is the history of your favorite food? That depends upon the food and how deep you want to dig. Take tiramasu. This dish was "created" in the late 20th century. You could find a few magazines articles confirming period popularity/origination and stop there. Or? You could go the next level and research the recipe based on composition. You would soon discover this dish was based on Victorian-era moulded creams which were based on Colonial-era tipsy cakes which were inspired by Renaissance-era trifles.

    EVOLUTION VS. INVENTION
    Very few (if any) foods are invented. Most are contemporary twists on traditional themes. Louis Diat's famous Vichysoisse was a childhood favorite. Today's grilled cheese sandwich is connected to ancient cooks who melted cheese on bread. 1950s meatloaf is connected to ground cooked meat products promoted at the turn of the 20th century, which are, in turn related to ancient Roman minces. Need more? Corn dogs and weiner schnitzel. French fries and Medieval fritters. New York gyros and Middle Eastern doner kebabs. Hershey's Kisses and ancient Incan cocoa.

    Where to begin?
    Check food history encyclopedias and dictionaries. Standard sources
    noted here. Cuisine/period cookbooks and history sources may also be helpful.

    Advanced techniques
    One of the most challenging aspects of recipe research is identifying common themes and making connections. A survey of cookbooks through time often reveals similar recipes with different names. A careful inspection of ingredients and cooking instruction confirms or refutes culinary lineage. To complicate matters, variant spellings often appear in older texts. Of course, the first "real" appearance of any recipe often predates the first occurence of recorded in print by several years.

    1. Examine old cookbooks.
    Work your way back from the current recipe. Look for similarities in ingredient and method. BEWARE. Recipes change names.

    2. Research the history of each ingredient.
    Old world or new? Rare commodity or common ingredient? Apple pie is an American icon, but apples aren't native to our country. Tomato sauce is the cornerstone of many popular Italian dishes, but these fruits (as they are botanically classed) weren't known to Europe until the 16th century. West African Lemony Chicken Okra Soup. Some foods (rice, beans, pork, bread, soup) are nearly ubiquitious. These recipes evolved according to ingredient availability, technological advancement, and local taste.

    PRODUCT HISTORIES
    If the product is still being made, start with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office database. This provides the date of first introduction, original manufacturer and (usually) current trademark holder. Corporate "biographies," article databases, product histories, and company Web sites often provide details on the product's introduction, market strategy, consumer trends, variations (the iterations of Oreos), packaging, and pricing. Anniversary articles (100th anniversary of Jell-0 celebrated in 1997) often provide excellent overviews.

    "LOST RECIPES"
    Family favorites can sometimes be recovered. It is very helpful if you have some idea of recipe origination: cookbook, magazine article, newspaper clipping, radio/television show, "back of the box," contest winner? Where did the cook usually get her recipes? Where and when (1930s Quebec) is important for tracking local fare. The cook's ethnic heritage (Polish Jew, French Canadian, West African) is crucial for locating "grandmother's traditional" recipes. Sources: old cookbooks, recipe exchanges, community cokbooks, period magazines & local newpapers.

    RESTAURANT DISHES
    Signature recipes from famous restaurants fall into three categories:

    1. Authentic
    Selected signature recipes released by the restaurant and/or copyright owners. These are found restaurant cookbooks, proprietior's/head chef's memoirs, and granted publication by heirs to restaurant "biographers" and journalists. Example? Brennan's Bananas Foster.
    2. KopyKat
    Recreations based on memory. Some of these can be pretty accurate, depending upon the culinary finesse of the recreator. These recipes circulate freely on the Internet and are easy to find. In Chasen's case it's Liz Taylor's favorite chili. Some CopyKat recipe collections are on the Internet. Others are printed in books.
    3. Unavailable. Period. End of story.
    Many beloved Horn & Hardart recipes fall into this category. Also included in this category: Kentucky Derby Pie, Colonel Sander's Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the original (pre U-Bet) chocolate sauce used for Brooklyn egg creams.

    TOOLS OF THE TRADE
    Researching the history of a specific cuisine, recipe, food, or product often requires using a variety of sources to develop a complete and accurate picture. Depending upon the question, the answer may require:

    Sometimes the answer to a food history question is straightforward and easy to confirm (the ingredients of the original Dagwood sandwich). Other times the answer is a tasty puzzle (Club sandwiches) with conflicting pieces. And then? There are questions for which there are no satisfactory answers (Who named the "monkey dish?"). There are times when the best one can do is assemble as much information as possible and make educated guesses based on supporting historical evidence. Croissants, ice cream cones, pink lemonade...culinary lore abounds.

    In short, food history is not a "piece of cake."

    Need to construct a more detailed/updated new food product timeline?
    There are several sources you can use to construct your own food product timeline. Sources vary according to your definition of "food invention" (brand new product, or variation of extant line (mini oreos) and purpose of your project. Yes, this is research! If you need new USA commercial food products, year-by-year we suggest you check:

    If you're looking for restaurant food innovations & trends, The National Restaurant Organization is your best bet for data.

    How do recipes get their names?
    How are recipes named? Great question with several answers. Recipe names celebrate, commemorate, elucidate, and entice. Recipes are named by chefs, restauranteurs, food companies, test kitchens, home cooks and contest winners. Recipes named for people generally fall into two categories: celebrities and family members/frequent patrons of the chef/restaurant owner. Consider:

    People (Lobster Newberg, Reuben Sandwiches, Chicken Tetrazzini, Fettuccini Alfredo)
    Places (New England Clam Chowder, Manhattans, Rocky Mountain Oysters, Waldorf Salad, Dover Sole, Frankfurters)
    Events (Chicken Marengo, Coronation Chicken, Earthquake Cake)
    Cooking method (Coq au vin, Fondue, New England Boiled Dinner, Tuna Noodle Casserole, Flower Pot Bread, Corned Beef)
    Classic French designations (Florentine=spinach, Poivrode=black pepper, Chiffonade=thin cut slices)
    Descriptive (Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce, Fried Onion Burgers, Memphis Dry Ribs, Chilled Cucumber Soup)
    Ethnic/cultural attributions (Irish Soda Bread, German Potato Salad, French Dressing, Russian Tea)
    Company promotions (Knox Perfection Salad, Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies, Kool-Aid Pickles)
    Shape (Flat-iron steak, Grape Tomatoes, Lemon Squares)
    Texture (Cream cheese, Mille Feuilles, Wilted lettuce, Fruit Leather, Chiffon Pie)
    "Looks Like" (Ciabbata=slipper, Elephant Ears, Cats Tongues/langues de chat, Mud Pie, Ox Eyes)
    "Tastes Like" (Mock Apple pie, Mock turtle soup)
    Foreign & Indigenous borrowings (Barbecue, Waffles, Kabobs, Quesadillas, Yogurt, Escabeche, Jambalaya, Sofki)
    Body parts (Head Cheese, Pigs Feet, Ox Tails, Spare Ribs)
    Flavors (Sweet & Sour Pork, Pepper Steak, Honey Mustard)
    Key ingredient (Tapioca Pudding, Beef a la Mode, Chicken Salad, Cornbread, Key Lime Pie, Navy Bean Soup, Gingerbread)
    Contests (SPAM, Tunnel of Fudge)
    Holidays (Christmas Pudding, Easter Ham, New Year Cookies)
    Origin stories (Ice Cream Sundaes, S'Mores)
    Intrigue (Impossible Pie, Zombies, Wacky Cake, Rocky Road, Red Velvet Cake, Pop Rocks)

    I have an old cook book without a cover or title page, is there a way to identify it?
    If your cook book has no standard identifying standard marks (title page, publishers marking/imprint, author, location) you might still be able to identify it. We find books like this from time to time. Physical description notes in catalogs of major collections (national libraries, university libraries, special collections housed in archives and museums) are gold.

    1. Take a physical inventory: number of pages (including any frontispiece material, last numbered page) and actual size (height, width, depth). Include any blank pages bound in the volume, noting where they appear.
    2. Check the physical printing/paper used. The older the book, the more "pourous" the paper. Ink itself may appear imprinted deeply. Typeface offers clues, as well as typographic conventions (18th c. sometimes adds marks at the bottom of right-hand page to indicate recipe is continued on the next page). As a general rule, the older the book, the better the quality paper & more likely it is to be in excellent readable shape.
    3. Illustrations? If so, where & of what?
    4. Arrangement: index in front or back? How are the recipes grouped? Is there an introduction? Advertisements included? Special section devoted to invalid, Lenten, medicinal, food preservation recipes?
    5. Recipes: Title, ingredients, method and presentation offer the best clues for approximate dating. Subtle nuances of method for popular recipes (macaroons, sally lunn, &c.) are key for tracing evolution & ultimately dating the item.
    If your book is completely manuscript (hand written) then recipes are your best clues. Also...where/when was the item purchased. Can you trace to possible original owner (either documented or by inference)?

    Cook books used in Early America were published in Europe and major urban American centers: New York., Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore. Recipes in those days were often copied verbatim from one author to another (forget trademark infringement!). Please note: many popular cook books through time offer several editions, revisions, publishers, and authors. We would be happy to help you determine an approximate date/identify your cookbook if you are willing to share information outlined above. It would also help if you could scan a few sample pages with the popular recipes. Who knows? We might be able to match it up!

    I have a manuscript cook book. How can I tell how old it is?
    Manuscript cook books are indeed rare and special finds. Decoding origins pose interesting challenges. As we turn the pages of this very personal piece of history, we wonder: who wrote this book and why?
    Recipe measures (butter the size of a walnut, No. 2 cans), cooking instructions ("until done," "hot oven") and kitchen tools (hoops, Mary Ann pans) are standard tools for identifying general period.

    1. Provenance: Where did you find this book? If it's a family heirloom then a genealogy search may be helpful. Are there any personal names (first, last) referenced in the text? ("Aunt Hatties Fruit Cake"). Inscriptions & ownership (for my daughter on her wedding, Mary's book) suggest intent and purpose. My grandmother's manuscript book reads: Laura R. Crystal, 7B, Domestic Science. I know she attended NYC public schools. Did 7B mean 7th grade, B section? If so, birth year might determine approximate year of this book. Newspaper clipping from the New York Herald c. 1916 may have been placed there at the time of writing or later.
    2. Physical properties: paper, cover & ink. Are the pages supple or brittle, is the ink readable or fading? Is pencil used? If items are inserted/attached to the book, do they provide clues? (Old newspapers clippings, corporate cooking brochures, scraps of paper attached with steel pins). Does the book have a hard or soft cover? Is the binding sewn or glued? Size of book (physical dimensions). Is it pocket size (suggests gift, or used in the kitchen) or oversized (suggests student's copy homework). Are the pages in pristine condition or are they stained & sticky? Professional appraisers and/or members of the Antiquarian American Booksellers Association are qualified to do this.
    3. Handwriting: Is the handwriting consistent throughout the manuscript? If there are multiple handwriting samples, it suggests the book was added to by other people. Or--added to when the author was older. Our handwriting ages with us. How many colors of ink are used? Are there illustrations? If so, do they depict the recipe (drawing of corn stick pan) or are they doodles, underlines, fanciful recipe headers?
    4. Spelling counts! Cocoanut was a common term in the 19th century. It switched to coconut in the early 20th century. Gelatine and Vitamines precede gelatin and vitamin.
    5. Order of recipes: is there a table of contents & index? Are the recipes grouped by primary ingredient, meal placement or alphabetically? (suggests book was copied directly from another source or well planned compilation of family favorites). If the recipes appear random order (meat, cake, pie, vegetable) it may suggest they were copied because they were favorites of the author or a school assignment (writing sample and/or cooking lesson).
    6. Recipe matching: both manuscript & published cookbooks "borrowed" recipes regularly from each other. Finding an exact recipe match may help narrow the date range. MSU's Feeding America Digital Cook Books offer several early American cook books, browsable by date/type and searchable by recipe name/ingredient.
    7. Placing the book. Look for indigenous ingredients, references to local markets or landmarks. Inserts (newspaper clippings) may provide clues.

    Standard scholarly protocol for examining/reading manuscript cook books for presentation to modern audiences includes:
    A. Complete list of recipes...cross indexed by type.
    B. List of ingredients...indicating frequency of reference. This suggests items commonly used by the author/readily available.
    C. Cooking terms & instructions...bake, fry, "until done."
    D. Weights & Measures...butter the size of a walnut, 3 pounds flour.
    E. Headnotes & introduction...author, provenance, how obtained.
    F. Transcription & original images...exact transcription vs slightly redacted to assist modern readers.
    G. Glossary...archaic terms (pie plant, paper of cornstarch) & radically different/variant spellings require explanation.
    H. Modernized recipes?...nice addition of the book is intended for general readers/home cooks. If you do not have culinary training, hire a professional recipe developer to supply workable directions.

    Want to recreate these old recipes? Our notes on interepreting & adapting vintage recipes.

    How much is my old cook book worth?
    The Food Timeline DOES NOT provide valuing services. Those services are provided by professional
    antiquarian booksellers, licensed appraisers, and auction houses. Free online sources for approximate values are used booksellers (Alibris, AbeBooks, UsedBookCentral, etc.) and EBay. Antique Trader's Collectible Cookbooks Price Guide/Patricia Edwards & Peter Peckham, provides price ranges for selected popular American books. Used/old book stores often have sections devoted to cookooks; check to see what the "going" retail rate is. Check item carefully for year published and edition.

    Please note: the value of old cook books, like anything else, is based on what buyers are willing to pay. Most mass produced cookbooks from the 20th century have low value on the open market. Of course, there are exceptions. Autographed copies, first editions, limited or special editions, are generally worth more than subsequent counterparts. Pre-20th century cookbooks generally have more value because they are harder to find.

    In all cases, condition of the item plays a key role in determing value. Original binding, covers, dust jackets, no missing pages, no writing (unless the owner was famous), no stains or obvious wear.

    Whether you're selling or buying, it pays to do your homework!

    Who designates "national" food days?
    "National" days (food or otherwise) are declared by one of three sources:
    1. Federal government (USA=Presidential Executive Order (EO) or Dept. of Commerce) designating a day, week, month dedicated to a particular topic. There is no limit to the number of EO in any given month. Topics are selected by legislators and organizations who want to promote awareness (School Lunch Month) or economic activity (a food designation generally promotes folks engaged in agriculture, transportation, retail and/or foodservice). EOs can be issued annually (Thanksgiving Proclamation) or one time.
    EO online.
    2. Industry associations declare national days to promote products. Example: National Sandwich Day.
    3. Companies declare national days to promote their products. Example: Iced Tea Week.
    4. Charities & not-for-profit organizations. Example: the original Doughnut Day.

    Tools for research:
    1. Chase's Calendar of Annual Events (found in many public libraries, but it is a challenge to find a library with a backrun). Entries are arranged by day, indexed by title and subject. Entries provide information regarding the originator of the day. Use Chases to track first and last instance of a particular day. This is interesting and detailed research because some "national" days actually change date and sponsor.
    2. Historic newspapers (National and local) are great sources for announcements and details, especially regarding ad campaigns and/or contests. Your local librarian can help you access.
    3. NOTE: Many "national" food move throughout the calendar through time. Today's "first Friday in June" might have been "last Tuesday in October" back in the day. Likewise, sponsorships and purposes can change from original intent to current mode.

    How do I become a food historian?
    Food historian is a niched career field. That's why you won't find information on what we do and where we work using standard career reference sources. While some schools (universities/culinary arts schools) offer classes in food history studies, there is no certification or specific degree for this career. [NOTE: some universities offer graduate degrees in
    gastronomy.] Many practictioners (but not all) have college/advanced degrees. These degrees center on history, anthropology, women's studies, English literature, sociology and library science. We are drawn to food history for different reasons. In some cases, food history "chose" us. Please note: many professional food historians have full-time "day" jobs to pay the bills.

    Where do food historians work?

    Culinary history organizations meet in some cities. They offer educational programs, topical lectures and excellent networking opportunities. Some food historians join the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). This organization offers a food history roundtable. It also manages the Culinary Trust, a non-profit organization devoted to preserving our culinary treasures and promoting scholarly research projects.

    What's the difference between a food historian and a culinary historian? The latter is also a professionally trained chef. The first group can study it; the second group can actually cook it. More or less.


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    Service notes

    Who is Lynne Olver?
    A food historian with a masters in library science. Since March 1999,
    Ms. Olver has welcomed 35 million readers and answered 25 thousand questions. She works regularly with students, teachers, media, culinary professionals, cook book authors/editors,living history museums, and the general public worldwide providing original content, background material, fact checking services, and document delivery. She is regularly tapped by journalists writing for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, NPR, America's Test Kitchens, Cooks Illustrated, Sunset, and Saveur. The Food Timeline was awarded Saveur 100 recognition (2004). Details on the FT's origin and evolution chronicled by Heritage Radio (Brooklyn NY) & Culinary Types/TW Barritt. Ms. Olver is a contributor to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (Second Breakfast, Mock Foods) and Gastronomica "The Truth About Clams Casino".

    Note: Ms. Olver is not a chef. Culinary training (if you call it that!) was a 4 year stint as a short order cook in college. She is an intuitive cook who views recipes as starting points for personal inspiration. Her dishes have no recipes, no names. Some work out better than others. None of them can be replicated. If we're lucky, life gives us a few delicious chances to experiment. When the results taste good, huzzah!


    FoodTimeline library owns 2000+ books, hundreds of 20th century USA food company brochures, & dozens of vintage magazines (Good Housekeeping, American Cookery, Ladies Home Journal &c.) We also have ready access to historic magazine, newspaper & academic databases. Service is free and welcomes everyone. Have questions? Ask!

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    Research conducted by Lynne Olver, editor The Food Timeline. About this site.
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    © Lynne Olver 2000
    21 September 2014