Building a timeline of food history is an understandably complex undertaking. Some elements are obvious: It begins with water, for instance, and must include moments like the creation of modern cornstarch and Betty Crocker cake mix. But parsing out the origins of the lollipop or identifying the world’s most definitive cookbook requires additional research prowess.
Lynne Olver, a reference librarian from New Jersey, dedicated 15 years to almost single-handedly studying and cataloging culinary history in her online Food Timeline. Featuring more than 70 individual entries, the portal offers a wealth of information on foods ranging from lard to mock turtle soup and frozen orange juice. Olver’s write-ups are incredibly thorough: The page on ice cream, for instance, is more than 32,000 words long, observes Luke Fater for Atlas Obscura.
“Food history presents a fascinating buffet of popular lore and contradictory facts,” reads the introduction to the archive. “Some experts say it’s impossible to express this topic in exact timeline format. They are correct. Most foods are not invented; they evolve. We make food history fun.”
Olver passed away in April 2015 after a months-long struggle with leukemia, leaving behind both her project and thousands of food-related texts. Now, reports Dayna Evans for Eater, the librarian’s family is searching for a new steward to continue and improve upon her life’s work.
The Food Timeline’s creator started her career early, working as a clerk in a local library’s children’s department at just 16 years old. After earning a degree in library science, she embarked on a 25-year career at the Morris County Public Library in New Jersey, rising up the ranks from reference librarian to director, according to Eater.
Olver ran a library newsletter in which she answered questions and wrote about the history of various objects and phenomena, including the Thanksgiving meal. Eventually, she got a computer, and in the late 1990s, started hand-coding the HTML that became the Food Timeline.
“She was an introvert,” Olver’s sister, Janice Martin, tells Eater. “When it came to research, she was fascinated by ferreting out information that nobody else could find.”
Olver’s personal library contained thousands of brochures and magazines, in addition to more than 2,300 food books, some published hundreds of years ago. She referenced this vast collection whenever a reader sent in a question or she decided to research a topic of personal interest.
The site, which pre-dates Wikipedia by two years, has largely retained its structure and aesthetic since Olver coded it in 1999. With its taupe-colored background and clashing red and blue text, it is visibly antiquated.
Still, no other site comes close to the depth of information compiled in the Food Timeline. By 2014, it had reached 35 million readers, according to Eater; by March of that year, Olver had personally answered 25,000 food history questions submitted by fans. As Alex Ketchum pointed out for the Historical Cooking Project in August 2018, the librarian “promised a turnaround time of 48 hours.”
In a 2013 interview with “A Taste of the Past” podcast host Linda Pelaccio, Olver noted that though she never “paid search engines for premium placement, solicited reciprocal links, partnered with book vendors or sold advertising,” her archive was the first hit on Google for the search phrase “food history.”
“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,” food historian Sandy Oliver tells Eater. “It didn’t have a hyperacademic approach, which would be off-putting.”
Olver, for her part, said the timeline was driven by her readers and what they wanted to know.
As the librarian’s site—and fame—grew, myriad people sought her expertise.
“Fourth graders in need of help with schoolwork, novelists looking to feed their characters period-correct meals, chefs in need of historic recipes, and food brands looking for their own company histories all called on Olver for help,” writes Atlas Obscura.
The Food Timeline offers tips on how to approach food history research, as well as explanations of how its creator compiled information from primary and secondary sources.
“One of my favorite groupings of people are those who are looking to recover family recipes,” Olver told Pelaccio in 2013. “I love that. As long as you can give me a little bit of context, then I have some direction.”
To better understand the recipes she was asked to research, Olver would often cook the foods in question. Sometimes, she solicited help from readers when her own research came up short.
Now, the Olver family is reaching out to food historians and fans to consider taking over the project. The position of website custodian is unpaid but comes with the thousands of books and documents Olver collected. Combined, these papers are probably worth tens of thousands of dollars, her husband, Gordon, estimates to Eater.
“The purpose is to help educate the public,” Olver told the “Restaurant Guys” podcast in 2004. “The Food Timeline was expressly created in response to students and teachers who are looking for basic information on food and food history. ... The site may look comprehensive on first pass, but there is plenty of room to grow.”