Food

The Internet’s Most Incredible Collection of Food History Has Been Saved

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A timeline of foods portrayed on a red background
Illustration by D’Ara Nazaryan

The Food Timeline — librarian Lynne Olver’s years-long endeavor to catalog the entire history of food — was in danger of disappearing forever, but it’s found a new home at Virginia Tech’s special collections archive

A few years ago, I was working on a story about bread soup when I stumbled upon a gold mine of culinary research called the Food Timeline. An obsessively catalogued, exhaustively comprehensive resource on the history of food, the Food Timeline is a lo-fi website free from advertising, where anyone can learn about the origins of what we eat from 17,000 B.C. onward. Want to know about how marshmallows came to be? Curious about the first appearance of sorghum in our diets? It’s all there. The page on soup alone contains over 70,000 words from primary sources, cataloged in breathless detail.

Even after I had finished researching that story, I spent untold hours on the Food Timeline. But I noticed that around 2013, the timeline mysteriously stopped. One small line at the bottom of the site explained why: “The Food Timeline was created and maintained solely by Lynne Olver (1958-2015, her obituary),” it read, “reference librarian with a passion for food history.”

In 2018, three years after she had passed away from leukemia, I went to New Jersey to meet with Olver’s family. I learned that she was a picky eater. That she loved The Twilight Zone. That she worked on the Food Timeline for hours every day outside of her full-time job, where she was the director of a local library. She took her laptop on vacation. She wrote in the royal “we” to lend the site more legitimacy. And in the nearly 20 years she’d been running the Food Timeline, she had answered more than 25,000 questions from people wondering where this recipe for pound cake or that recipe for clams casino came from.

I also learned from her family that in the three years since she had passed away, no one had come forward to carry on the legacy of the Food Timeline, and so the site languished. While Olver was protective of the site, and had renewed the domain for 10 more years before her passing, she never put together a succession plan; they had all believed to the last, when her leukemia took a turn for the worse, that she would pull through, that her bone marrow transplant would work. “None of us were of the opinion that it wasn’t going to work until the moment that it didn’t,” Gordon Olver, Lynne’s widower, said.

So for the past few years, Gordon has put out feelers to institutions to take over Lynne’s life’s work. He wanted to donate the website and Lynne’s more than 2,300 reference books to an organization willing to continue the timeline and Olver’s careful research, ad-free and in the interest of the public good. “I talked to people about it who I thought might have better ideas, but I really only had a couple of places that I thought I could go,” he recalled over the phone in December. “I got very little — if any — interest from those organizations.”

The situation changed this summer, after the profile I wrote about Olver and the Food Timeline was published. “I thought maybe a university or two, or a couple of individuals, might be interested in doing something,” Gordon said. Instead, the response overwhelmed him. “There was a combination of 87 organizations and individuals that expressed a significant interest in taking over the website,” he said.

The range of responses was not limited to universities with library science programs or culinary institutions interested in acquiring Lynne’s expansive food library. There were celebrity chefs, fiction writers, food fanatics, and even one woman I knew from high school, all reaching out with the hopes of carrying on Lynne’s legacy. “When I logged onto the Food Timeline in 2015 and discovered Lynne had died, I was devastated. I was in disbelief,” one person wrote by email. “If there is any small way that I might be of assistance in keeping her legacy alive, please call on me,” one professional chef offered. “The magic of the site, it seems to us, is that it is not just a place where you can go to learn about food, but a place where you learn how to go about finding more,” a married couple from Michigan wrote.

The Olver family started to collect the responses in a spreadsheet, Gordon said, narrowing down the options to their top five. The most important things for the family were that the future custodian stay true to the idea of no advertising, that Lynne’s collection of 2,300 books would be made available to the public, and that the website, in all of its web 1.0 glory, not change too much. “Even if there was a need to make changes and to upgrade it,” Gordon said, that was fine, as long as it held onto its flavor. “You can have a very old-looking car with new guts.”

A clear favorite eventually emerged: the Special Collections and University Archives department at Virginia Tech University. Lynne had no specific connection to the university, but of all the suitors, the staff at VT were the most committed to maintaining the Food Timeline’s mission. Kira Dietz, the assistant director of special collections and university archives at Virginia Tech, wrote that their proposal for the project would be interdisciplinary among different sectors of the university, and that even outside of the library and food studies program, “other faculty are willing to commit time and technical expertise to this potential project.” That meant that, even if Lynne’s books were housed in the History of Food & Drink library, they would be accessible to everyone. And the site, as always, would continue on as a free resource for everyone, everywhere, with students and faculty updating it with their latest research.

Lynne’s books arrived at the university in the winter and the early plans of what comes next are still in development. The path forward won’t necessarily be a smooth one, at least until we emerge from the pandemic, Dietz told me. Right now, Virginia Tech has limited operating hours, and visits to the library can be made by limited appointments only. “There are primarily three of us and we’re all only on site half-time or less,” Dietz said. She hopes that the books will be cataloged by the end of January, and that she and the other reference librarians can start answering food-related questions and adding to the site shortly thereafter. The website is currently down as Virginia Tech performs maintenance, but Dietz anticipates it will be back up and running again within the next two weeks. In the meantime, she said, the Wayback Machine version is still accessible for any pressing research questions.

Taking on such an enormous resource was never going to be an immediate handover, Dietz said. “This is not going to be an overnight process.” But she encouraged anyone who is interested in learning more about their plans for the timeline, or who has a food reference question, or who wants to talk about Olver’s legacy, to reach out to her anyway. She said the librarians on staff will do their best to answer as soon as they can, with as much information as they can, just like Lynne would have done. In time, when the global pandemic has passed, Dietz anticipates there could be as many as eight full-time qualified staff members working on and maintaining some part of the Food Timeline.

For Gordon, the most important thing for now is that the site and his wife’s books are in good hands. He estimates that with the donation of books and the value of the domain, he’ll get a considerable amount of money back in his taxes next year. “I plan on donating that money to start a foundation for a scholarship in Lynne’s name,” he told me. The fund would support the people, whether students or otherwise, who will keep the work of the Food Timeline going at Virginia Tech. He hopes that when the details are worked out, others will contribute to this scholarship fund, too. “If you found value in this and you want to help keep Lynne’s name out there, this would be one way to do it,” he said. “She put so much time and effort into this and we just love her so much and miss her.” Anything he can do to honor Lynne’s life and work, he said, is worth it.

Dayna Evans is a freelance writer currently based in Philadelphia.

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