What we ate and when: A journey of food history – art and culture

It doesn’t look like much. FoodTimeline.org’s two-colour scheme and big HTML links are straight from the era of Alta Vista search engines, Netscape browsers and TCP/IP dial-up Internet.

Born in 1999, a year after Google and two years before Wikipedia, the website charts when an ingredient and recipe may have become part of our diet. From water and salt to test-tube burgers and cronuts, it’s all there in in obsessive chronological order.

Scroll through the timeline and you’ll learn that instant noodles (1958) predate chicken tikka masala (1975). That portobello mushrooms didn’t get popular until the 1980s, but that lollipops have been called that since at least 1784.

Click on an ingredient, and you’re taken to equally featureless but exhaustive pages of culinary history and commentary, offering the where, who and why to the when.

The site says it draws on “old cookbooks, newspapers, magazines, National Historic Parks, government agencies, universities, cultural organizations, culinary historians, and company/restaurant websites”. But all that highly detailed non-academic ad-free material is the work of one modest New Jersey librarian.

Lynne Olver taught herself HTML in the 1990s, bought the domain name and quietly built up her timeline, answering nearly 25,000 food-related questions from fans along the way.

For Indian food, she relied primarily on KT Achaya’s Indian Food: A Historical Companion and A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, both bibles for food researchers on the Indian subcontinent. But Olver’s timeline puts local developments into global perspective. If Achaya points out that fermented idlis weren’t born in India but carried over by the cooks of Indonesian kings between the 8th and the 12th centuries, Olver also lists foods that were introduced, cooked or preserved elsewhere in that period: corned beef, tofu, okra, lychees.

For now, FoodTimeline.org is sort of on the back burner. Olver died from leukaemia in 2015, leaving behind the site and a personal library of 2,300 food-history books, plus thousands of brochures and vintage magazines. The site has been archived by the American Library of Congress. But no one has taken over her mammoth project and no new entries have been made since her death.

The Olver family is looking for someone to keep the timeline going, particularly since archives around the world are getting digitised and easier to cross-reference. Olver did it with no financial aid, no fancy coding skills, no assistance and no food-influencer network. Care to give it a taste?

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