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Who Will Save the Food Timeline?

The internet’s most comprehensive archive of food history — a passion project of one dedicated librarian — predates Wikipedia. Now, it needs a new custodian.

In the long timeline of human civilization, here’s roughly how things shook out: First, there was fire, water, ice, and salt. Then we started cooking up and chowing down on oysters, scallops, horsemeat, mushrooms, insects, and frogs, in that general chronological order. Fatty almonds and sweet cherries found their way into our diet before walnuts and apples did, but it would be a couple thousand years until we figured out how to make ice cream or a truly good apple pie. Challah (first century), hot dogs (15th century), Fig Newtons (1891), and Meyer lemons (1908) landed in our kitchens long before Red Bull (1984), but they all arrived late to the marshmallow party — we’d been eating one version or another of those fluffy guys since 2000 B.C.

This is, more or less, the history of human eating habits for 20,000 years, and right now, you can find it all cataloged on the Food Timeline, an archival trove of food history hiding in plain sight on a website so lo-fi you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a GeoCities fanpage. When you look past the Times Roman font and taupe background, the Food Timeline happens to be the single most comprehensive inventory of food knowledge on the internet, with thousands upon thousands of pages of primary sources, cross-checked research, and obsessively detailed food history presented in chronological order. Every entry on the Food Timeline, which begins with “water” in pre-17,000 B.C. and ends with “test tube burgers” in 2013, is sourced from “old cook books, newspapers, magazines, National Historic Parks, government agencies, universities, cultural organizations, culinary historians, and company/restaurant web sites.” There is history, context, and commentary on everything from Taylor pork roll to Scottish tablet to “cowboy cooking.”

A couple of years ago, I landed on the humble authority of the Food Timeline while doing research on bread soup, a kind of austerity cuisine found in countless cultures. The entry for soup alone spans more than 70,000 words (The Great Gatsby doesn’t break 50,000), with excerpts from sources like Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat’s A History of Food, John Ayto’s An A-Z of Food and Drink, and D. Eleanor Scully and Terence Scully’s Early French Cookery. Before long, I fell into the emotional condition known as an internet K-hole, following link after link after link for hours on end. From olla podrida to hodge podge to cassava to taro to Chex Mix to Johnnycakes, the Food Timeline covered everything. Did you know that mozzarella sticks go as far back as the Middle Ages, but back then they called them “pipefarces”? I bookmarked the site and returned to it time and time again, when I was researching, writing, or just bored and hungry.

Despite the Food Timeline’s incredible utility, few people I spoke to had ever heard of it. Those who had always marveled at its breadth. “Oh my god, it’s nirvana,” Taste of the Past podcast host Linda Pelaccio said to herself when she first stumbled onto the Food Timeline. Sandy Oliver, a food historian and fellow fan, was stunned by its completeness and simplicity. “It was one of the most accessible ways of getting into food history — especially if you were a beginner — because it was just so easy to use,” she told me. “It didn’t have a hyperacademic approach, which would be off-putting.”

When Oliver learned that the thousands of pages and countless resources on the Food Timeline were compiled and updated entirely by one woman, she couldn’t believe it. “Oh my lord,” she thought. “This is an obsessed person.”

The Food Timeline, in all its comprehensive splendor, was indeed the work of an obsessed person: a New Jersey reference librarian named Lynne Olver. Olver launched the site in 1999, two years before Wikipedia debuted, and maintained it, with little additional help, for more than 15 years. By 2014, it had reached 35 million readers and Olver had personally answered 25,000 questions from fans who were writing history papers or wondering about the origins of family recipes. Olver populated the pages with well-researched answers to these questions, making a resource so thorough that a full scroll to the bottom of the Food Timeline takes several labored seconds.

For nearly two decades, Olver’s work was everyone else’s gain. In April of 2015, she passed away after a seven-month struggle with leukemia, a tragedy acknowledged briefly at the bottom of the site. “The Food Timeline was created and maintained solely by Lynne Olver (1958-2015, her obituary), reference librarian with a passion for food history.”

In the wake of Olver’s death, no one has come forward to take over her complex project, leaving a void in the internet that has yet to be filled — and worse, her noble contribution to a world lacking in accurate information and teeming with fake news is now in danger of being lost forever.

It isn’t often that we are tasked with thinking about the history of the food that we eat, unless it shows up in a Jeopardy! question or we ask our informal family historians to detail whose mother passed down this or that version of pound cake. But there are plenty of reasons to pay close attention: for curiosity’s sake; for deepening an appreciation of and respect for cooks, food, and technique; and for gathering perspective on what came before us. “Very few (if any) foods are invented. Most are contemporary twists on traditional themes,” Olver wrote on the Food Timeline. “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.”

The problem is that these days we’re overloaded with bad information that can be accessed instantaneously, with few intermediaries running quality control. “I think it’s a little too easy to turn to the web,” Oliver, who was also a longtime friend of Olver’s, told me as we talked about the legacy of Food Timeline. “What I worry about is that people aren’t learning critical thinking skills. Once in a while I run into someone who has never used a primary source — wouldn’t know it if it hit them on the head. Libraries are where you’d find that stuff. It’s not the same as using a Wikipedia page at all.” Or, if not a library, a mammoth resource compiled by a certified reference librarian herself. Whenever a reader would write in asking a question, or when Olver herself would become interested in the provenance of a certain food, she’d turn to her personal library of thousands of food books, and her litany of professional resources and skills, and write out detailed answers with sources cited on her website.

As Olver emphasized proudly in a 2013 interview on Pelaccio’s Taste of the Past podcast, when you Google “food history,” the Food Timeline appears first in the search results, even though she never “paid search engines for premium placement, solicited reciprocal links, partnered with book vendors, or sold advertising.” Over the years, thousands of emails poured in asking Olver for help finding the specific information they were looking for, like the history of a weird cheese or a grandmother’s pie recipe.

“One of my favorite groupings of people are those who are looking to recover family recipes,” Olver explained to Pelaccio. “I love that! As long as you can give me a little bit of context, then I have some direction.” She would often cook the recipes people sent her so she could gain a better understanding of the legacy of certain foods. Occasionally, she would struggle to come up with an answer to readers’ questions. “If anybody out there knows the answer to this, please let me know,” she began on Pelaccio’s podcast. “I’ve been asked repeatedly over the years for a recipe for ‘guildmaster sauce.’ It is mentioned on some of the old railroad menus and on fancy dining car menus, but we are not coming up with a recipe or other references.” She never got the answer.

“One of the reasons she wanted people to learn about food was for the simple basic fundamental fact that it kept people alive,” Sara Weissman, a fellow reference librarian at the Morris County Public Library and occasional Food Timeline collaborator, told me. “It was that simple. There was no pretension about it.” Olver found food to be a universal subject of interest — everyone had something to share and everyone had something to learn.

“Yesterday I took the entire day off from work because I wanted to research seitan wheat meat,” Olver told Pelaccio. “My whole site is really driven by my readers. What is it that they want to know?”

The Olvers’ former family home is a modest colonial that sits on a shady suburban street in Randolph, New Jersey, about 10 minutes from the Morris County Public Library, where Lynne worked for more than 25 years. It is fastidiously clean and welcoming, and Olver’s library was still the focal point of the house when I visited a little more than a year ago. As she amassed primary sources to build out the Food Timeline, the sitting room filled up with bookshelves to house her more than 2,300 books — some dating to the 17th century — as well as thousands of brochures and vintage magazines, and a disarrayed collection of other food ephemera, like plastic cups from Pat’s and Geno’s and a tin of Spam. “One of 10 top iconic American manufactured foods, SPAM holds a special place on our national table & culinary folklore,” Olver wrote on the Timeline.

Despite Olver’s intense fondness for it as an object of inquiry, Spam did not hold a special place on her palate; she never tried it. A picky eater, she detested lima beans, pistachio ice cream, calamari, slimy textures, and anything that even edged on raw. When she was in high school in the early ’70s, her favorite dish to make was something she called “peas with cheese,” which is as simple as it sounds. “She would take frozen peas and she’d melt cheese on it, mostly Swiss,” then cover the messy pile in Worcestershire sauce, Olver’s sister, Janice Martin, recalled. “We called Worcestershire sauce ‘life’s blood.’ It was coursing through our veins.” (Sadly, the Timeline does not include an entry for peas with cheese.)

Making peas with cheese as a teenager was the beginning of what would become a lifelong interest in food for Olver. Libraries also captured her attention early on: At 16, she took her first job as a clerk in the Bryant Library in Roslyn, New York, shelving books in the children’s department. There, she was mentored by two older librarians, whom she loved. “She was an introvert,” Olver’s sister told me. “When it came to research, she was fascinated by ferreting out information that nobody else could find.” In 1980, she graduated with a degree in library science from Albany State University, where she also worked as a short-order cook, making sandwiches for students and faculty at a university canteen.

Olver and her future husband, Gordon, met at Albany State and married the year after Olver graduated, in 1981, after which they worked in Manhattan (Lynne at a law library, Gordon in reinsurance), then Connecticut. They eventually had two children — Sarah and Jason — and settled in New Jersey in 1991, where Olver found a job as a reference librarian at the Morris County Public Library, eventually becoming the head of reference, and finally director of the library.

It was during Olver’s time as a reference librarian that the seed was planted for the Food Timeline. It began as an assignment to explain the origins of Thanksgiving dinner to children, to be published on an early incarnation of the library’s website. Around the same time, Olver was asked to write a monthly print newsletter to share library news, which she named Eureka!. One section of the newsletter was devoted to “Hot Topics,” as Olver and her colleague Sharon Javer wrote in the first dispatch. “Each month, this lead feature will focus on a particular theme: holidays, New Jersey events sources, census data, and so on. Included in this sizzling section will be answers to arduous questions, practical pointers and many marvelous morsels of information.”

Eureka!, in a sign of things to come, began to take over her life. “I remember one time saying to her, ‘How come we’re buying all this colored paper?’” Gordon, her husband, told me. “The library wouldn’t pay for the paper, so she was buying it on her own. When the library realized it was taking so much of her time, they asked her to stop. Meanwhile, she had put so much time and effort into it that she said to them, ‘Just pass it over to me, I’ll take it.’”

When the family got a Gateway computer in the late ’90s, Olver began teaching herself HTML, and by 1999, she was combining her interest in the Thanksgiving dinner project and the Eureka! answers column into a hybrid website she called the Food Timeline, where she could focus on providing well-researched food history on her own time. An archived version of the 1999 Food Timeline still exists and looks — unsurprisingly — more or less the same as the one now. “We still hand code html & today’s readers comment the site is ‘ugly,’” Olver wrote under the site’s “Market Strategy.” “We acknowledge: what was cutting edge in 1999 is now stale. Conversley? [sic] FT looks so old it’s become vintage.”

Olver wrote everything on the Food Timeline with a royal “we,” including her responses to readers’ emails, despite the fact the project was largely hers, with an occasional assist from others. “‘I don’t want anyone to know that it’s just me,’’’ Sarah recalled her mom saying. “She wanted people to believe that it was a network of volunteers,” because she felt that it lent the site more credibility.

While Olver worked at the county library by day, by night she was creating an online resource for anyone who wanted to know more about Johnny Appleseed or chuck wagon stew or the origins of Sauce Robert. By the website’s first anniversary, Olver was already spending upwards of 30 hours a week on the Food Timeline, compiling and posting all the information she was digging up and answering readers’ questions about the origins of their grandmothers’ crumble recipes. “If you came in the house and you wanted to know where she was, and she wasn’t cooking, she was in the office on the computer,” Gordon recalled.

Eventually, even the cooking fell behind. Olver’s children came to expect burnt grilled cheese sandwiches at meals Sarah said. “She would be like, ‘I’ll leave these [on the stove] and go do my work,’ and then she would forget because she was so into what she was doing.”

Over time, the audience for the site expanded, and Olver’s subtle form of fame grew with it. She was named a winner of the New York Times Librarian Award in 2002, and, in 2004, Saveur put the Food Timeline on its Saveur 100 list of the best food finds that year. In the mid-2010s, she was asked to contribute to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America and consult for America’s Test Kitchen.

Sarah and Jason recalled taking their mother to a cooking class at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan during that time period. “She was so excited about the teacher of this class because she had heard of her through her research,” Sarah told me. “When we got there, the teacher was like, ‘I’m looking at my roster of students and I see that Lynne Olver is here. Where is Lynne Olver?’ Mom kind of timidly raised her hand, and this chef was like, ‘I’ve been dying to meet you!’” The chef who left Olver starstruck was just as starstruck to meet Olver.

For years, Olver lived something of a double life. As the director of a mid-size suburban library, she was known to hand out PayDay candy bars to her staff on pay day and shovel snow from the building walkway during snowstorms, while as the founder of Food Timeline, she brought her computer on vacation, dutifully responding to readers’ food history questions within the promised 48-hour window. “I think she started on the internet as a way to reach a lot of people,” her sister said. “A lot of people who wouldn’t go into the library.”

The night before her wedding, in September 2014, Olver’s daughter, Sarah, noticed that her mom wasn’t acting like herself. While the family was sitting all together in the living room, Olver got up to go to the bathroom; minutes later, she was in the throes of a seizure. Sarah called 911, and Olver was taken to the hospital. The family stayed with her until doctors sent them home in the early hours of Sarah’s wedding day. The wedding had to go on, though Olver was too sick to attend. Doctors diagnosed her with leukemia the next day.

Olver had known for a while that she was sick, but didn’t want to ruin the wedding, so she had put off telling anyone. “She’d be like, ‘I’m dying, but let me put everyone else first,’” Sarah said. Olver was kept in the hospital for two months, but fought hard to be home for Thanksgiving. “It was my first time cooking Thanksgiving dinner because she wasn’t feeling up to cooking — and I ruined it,” Sarah said. “The turkey shrunk off the bone. That was one of the only things that made her laugh in a really long time.”

When she was diagnosed with leukemia, Olver used the Food Timeline’s Twitter account to grumble about the food in the ICU at Morristown Medical Center, where she stayed until she was transferred to specialists in Hackensack two months later. “It was a chicken cutlet with some kind of sauce on it,” Gordon recalled; the post has since been taken down by the family. “She said, ‘This sauce, I don’t know what it is, I’m not eating it. It doesn’t look very good. It’s not a natural color.’”

Following her stay at the hospital in Hackensack, Olver returned home to wait for a bone marrow transplant. “She had to use a walker because balance was a problem, but very shortly after getting back from the hospital, she was walking around and doing all of her Food Timeline stuff again,” Gordon explained. She was responding to emails, diving back into her research. “On her birthday, March 10, she said, ‘I had a glorious day.’”

The reason? “Someone had written in with a question that she liked.”

A little over a month later, Lynne died of leukemia, only one year short of her retirement from the library. She had been planning to spend her retirement working on it full time: Earlier that year, she had renewed the Food Timeline domain for 10 more years.

A year after Olver’s death, her family began to discuss what would happen to the Food Timeline and who could take it over. “What we know is that we couldn’t do it justice ourselves,” Sarah said.

To anyone willing and able to maintain Olver’s vision of an ad-free, simply designed, easy-to-access resource on food history, the family members say that the website and her library are theirs, for free. A couple of people have put forward their names, but the family felt that their hearts weren’t in the right place. “One woman had shown us what she had done with her website and it was just full of banner advertisements,” Gordon said.

“It has to uphold her vision,” Sarah added.

Olver’s book collection — if a price were to be put on it — would be worth tens of thousands of dollars, Gordon estimates. So far, there have been no takers for either the books or the task of keeping the site going.

“The Culinary Institute of America initially expressed interest,” Gordon said. “But three months later, they came back and said, ‘We don’t really have the ability to take that volume of texts and dedicate [the task of updating the site] to a specific person. I said they were missing the point; I wasn’t looking to give them the books unless they wanted the website, too.”

The Food Timeline was — and still is — a great democratizing force. “I think Lynne liked that the internet was for everybody and by everybody. Knowledge is power, but sharing knowledge is the best,” Lynne’s sister, Janice, told me. “If you hold the knowledge and you can help everybody get it, that’s where it’s at.” Lynne Olver, an award-winning reference librarian, wanted everybody to know exactly what she knew.

“I would second anybody who says that they want Food Timeline to be brought up to date, who know how to keep that valuable digitized information where people can get their hands or their minds on it,” Sandy Oliver told me. “I’d hate to think Lynne had spent all those hours doing all that work and have it just slide into oblivion. I’d love to see it continue in whatever useful form it can.”

Dayna Evans is a freelance writer currently based in Paris. She last wrote for Eater about the rise of community fridges across the country. D’Ara Nazaryan is an art director & illustrator living in Los Angeles.
Fact checked by Samantha Schuyler


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