Foodies With A Memory: Ann Arbor's Culinary Historians

Jugged beaver should be marinated in onion and wine for 10 hours, then browned in bacon drippings before seasoning with bay leaf, garlic, and thyme.

While filet of beaver by candlelight may not be to modern tastes, it was genuine lighthouse fare on Lake Superior circa 1910-1930, according to Treasured Recipes From the Shipwreck Coast. This book and others show that foodstuffs past and current aren't just basic sustenance or the latest trendy dollops in foam - there's a whole, relatively new, field of historical and cultural inquiry in the kitchen domain.

An interest in culinary bits of yore has been a life project for Ann Arbor resident Janice Longone, founder and honorary president of the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor and curator of American culinary history at the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive at the University of Michigan's Clements Library..

Longone, an early codifier of American culinary history, defines the field as "anything that influences or influenced America or that America influenced in the culinary world. That really means everything. We need to know about transportation, we need to know about the history of ice in America before refrigerators. How did the world change because of that?"

Longone knows the answers.

A short curriculum vitae: A teacher of a history of gastronomy class at U-M, the first of its kind in the nation. Author of entries on American cookbook history for the Oxford Companion to Food. Associate editor for the Oxford Encyclopedia on Food and Drink in America. Speaker at culinary symposia worldwide, including the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.

And it's her mission to dispel the early-on notion that America has no culinary food traditions. Many budding culinary historians worldwide attended the Oxford symposium, she says, and "they laughed and they scoffed and they said 'America has no history at all, and certainly no culinary history. All you eat are hamburgers, french fries, and ketchup.' " She countered that assumption with a talk about corn, an indigenous product of the New World. And now it seems the universe is paying American culinary heritage some heed. Last year she represented the U.S. at the largest cookbook fair in the world, held in Paris, where she spoke about charity cookbooks issued by church groups.

What really cemented her stature in the field was the Wine and Food Library, an antiquarian culinary bookshop she opened in 1972 and operated by mail order and appointment only. Julia Child, James Beard, and Craig Claiborne, a former food editor for the New York Times, dropped Longone's name as the go-to for out-of-print cookbooks. "And every day I would get a phone call saying 'James Beard told me to call you. Julia Child told me to call you. Craig Claiborne told me to call you.' And that started the bookshop," Longone says. Her inventory also provided fodder for a dozen exhibitions of culinary ephemera.

The Clements initially had a "very small" culinary collection, she says. After the director of the Clements Library at the time took note of her exhibitions, she says, "The mandate was 'Build an archive second to none that you would come to if you didn't live here.'"

So she and her husband, Dan Longone, a U-M professor emeritus of chemistry, started donating collectibles to the archive in 2000. The archive has logged 55,000 volunteer hours and items are being added as fast as they can be catalogued. The "very inclusive" collection has a comprehensive set of pre-1900 ephemera, fairly full coverage up to 1950, and more sporadic coverage of the following decades.

"For example, Vietnamese contributions to American cookery, we're not the people. They're too recent for us," she explains. But Chinese cookery, which has existed in the U.S. for hundreds of years, is well-represented. Over 7,000 items of advertising ephemera have been catalogued, everything from ads for apple parers to early Jello pamphlets. As for a total item count, "we have used the figure 20,000 items, but it's really much larger than that."

While the archive isn't meant to serve walk-ins looking for tonight's chocolate cake recipe, Longone says, "We welcome anyone to come in who's serious." (Martha Stewart has visited.) Locals looking to do research before opening bars, restaurants, and breweries also come by.

"The university is into entrepreneurship, and they talk mostly in science and all. But it's entrepreneurship, the people who are opening up restaurants and bakeries, and people who are doing artisanal cheeses, people who are starting vineyards, and [raising] heirloom cows and pigs, people who are doing orchards with heirloom apples and pears. All of this is part of our life. And there's a great interest now in what's called gastro-tourism."

A virtual world gastro-tour can be had at meetings of the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor, which Longone founded in 1983. The nationally-recognized group promotes the study of culinary history and gastronomy and publishes Repast, a magazine-quality quarterly newsletter that often pushes 20 pages. It runs quirky and intriguing original pieces, including: "M&M's, the Chicago Cabbie Haven"; "Kamagata Dojo Enters Its Third Century"; and "Pigeon Pie at James' Inn". The 150-strong group is open to all, and counts among its members food writers, restaurant owners, scholars, and students. It welcomes guest speakers, from proponents of urban agriculture to brewers to the founder of the Paris-based La Varenne Cooking School.

So does Longone feel that American culinary heritage is finally being invited to the table?

"I think without question. Now America is a country you can visit to eat," Longone says. "All over the world now, they're making barbecue. Some of the greatest chefs here in America today are of backgrounds from other countries. They're French, they're Indonesian, they're Peruvian, they're Italian, Turkish. You name it, every country in the world, they want to send their kids here to learn more about the way we do things."

Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer, poet, and the Assistant Editor of Concentrate and Metromode. Her last article was Adventures In Pizza-making.

 

All photos by Doug Coombe

Photos:

Jan Longone at the Clements Library.
The Art of Cheese-making by Joshua Johnson, 1801.
Jan Longone with the Culinary Archive at the Clements Library.
Theory and Practice of the Confectioner by Erich Weber, 1929.
Jan Longone with a facsimile of the first cookbook by an African American woman. The book by Malinda Russell was published in Paw Paw, MI in 1866. Jan tracked down the only known copy of the book.
Porter (beer) Process from The American Practical Brewer and Tanner by Joseph Coppinger, 1815.
Jan Longone at the Clements Library.
A Memoir on the Cultivation of the Vine in America, and the Best Mode of Making Wine by John Adlum, 1823.
Jan Longone with Cre Fuller and Amy Fredell at the Clements Library.

Signup for Email Alerts