Spice Up Food Copy With Online Timeline

By: Charles Bowen

You can hear the feature writers groaning when the assignment is to produce some more “food copy.” It’s not necessarily that they don’t like writing about recipes, cooks, and special dinners. It’s just that it is usually so difficult to come up with a fresh approach in such a frequently reported topic.

So maybe the Web has a solution. I like a site operated by a New Jersey library that invites us to look at food from an entirely different point of view: from a historical perspective. Food Timeline, created and maintained by the Morris County Library in Whippany, N.J., starts with ancient history — pre-17,000 B.C. — when salt and rice first appear in the human diet. Zipping forward to the Roman Era, we find a discussion on creamy rice pudding, said to be the first recorded recipe. Then there’s the story of Chinese noodles, invented about 300 B.C.

OK, I hear you. If that were all this site offered, we’d be talking Discovery Channel here, not a tool for working reporters and editors.

But wait. It’s the more recent listings on the timeline that should whet your appetite for more. Need to know the history of Jell-o? Campbell’s soup? Clark bars? Tootsie Rolls? Moon Pies? Kool-Aid? Milk Duds? For these and dozens of other well-known brand names, the site provides quick links to the official stories. Moreover, the site has the scoop on dozens of generic goodies, like French toast, chop suey, banana splits, ranch dressing, and popsicles. The next time you’re writing about local snacks and come across, say, “Buffalo Wings,” you can trace the food’s lineage back to Buffalo, N.Y., and the good works of Teressa Bellisimo in 1964. Also the site has separate listings of social customs, manners, and menus offered in a Culinary History Timeline.

To use this entertaining, detailed resource, visit the site at http://www.gti.net/mocolib1/kid/food.html, where the simple, information-packed introductory page provides dozens of hyperlinked keywords and titles along with dates. The site is easiest to use by browsing. Simply scroll the page to move along the timeline from the earlier entries at the top to the latest at the bottom. If a word or phrase intrigues you, click on it for details.

Some of the reports are original to the site, while other hyperlinks take you to separate sites, such as the history section of home pages operated by commercial products. A shortcoming of the site is that there is no search facility. However, since the page is plain-vanilla text, you can use your Web browser’s own built-in “Find” option to search the timeline. On most browsers, you can do this by selecting the “Edit” option on the menu bar, then choosing “Find (on This Page)” from the drop-down menu. In the resulting search box, enter a word and click the “Find Next” button.

Other considerations for using the Food Timeline in your writing and editing:

1. This site was created in response to students, parents, and teachers asking those at the Morris County library for help for assorted research projects. “All information,” says the site, “is checked against standard reference tools for accuracy,” including “The Oxford Companion to Food,” “The Cambridge World History of Food,” “Larousse Gastronomique,” “The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink,” “Food in History,” and “History of Food.”

2. The site also features recipes from a variety of sources including National Historic Parks, government agencies, universities, cultural organizations, culinary historians, primary documents, and company/restaurant Web sites. “We have not cooked all of them in our own kitchens,” the site managers note, “and cannot vouch for their results in yours.”

3. For related topics on social customs, manners, and menus, check out the library’s Culinary History Timeline (www.gti.net/mocolib1/kid/food1.html).

To see Bowen’s last 10 columns, click here. Previous columns may be purchased in our paid archives. Search for “Bowen” in the “Author” field.

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