Quest for the Quintessential American Meal

Quest for the Quintessential American Meal

In graduate school at Cornell five decades ago, a friend asked Jan Longone to make a quintessential American meal. What, exactly, would that include, wondered the petite Boston-accented woman?

That question sparked a quest for Longone and her husband Daniel, now an emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan. Over time, the pair amassed the most impressive and far-reaching collection of culinary titles representing American food and wine.

Jan gravitated toward food-related materials while Dan preferred those on wine. “We had this separate but overlapping interest,” he says. “We were always book people.”

More than a collection, which they were certainly building, the Longones “were generating a point of view that was not common”: that food and wine are a valid expression of American history.

It is perhaps appropriate that the metaphor descriptor of America is as a melting pot. But it’s not one where “people lose their own traditions,” insists Jan. Rather, “every ethnic group brought things with them. They changed our food, and we changed their food.”

Before they donated their collection to the University of Michigan Clements Library in 2005, the pair ran a makeshift antiquarian culinary bookshop from their ranch home in Ann Arbor, called The Wine and Food Library. Titles were purchased by greats like James Beard, Julia Child and Alice Waters by mail or appointment only. The tomes covered every surface in every room—”we had very little furniture,” Jan jokes.

Their collection represented 26 languages and every derivative of American culinary history from Armenian to Welsh. “American culinary history is anything America influences or influences America in culinary terms,” asserts Jan.

For years, the pair battled the perspective of foreigners that America had no culinary integrity or history. They shook their heads when others scoffed, “America has hamburgers.”

Every piece of the collection is rare and it’s not all cookbooks. Wine materials include “any old books that had something to say” about wine. That includes the cultural role of wine, early paintings of winemaking processes and passages on the relationship between wine and food.

“As a scientist, I became interested in what in the world made [early cultures] add sea water [to winemaking], how did resin develop and what did that have to do with clay jars used to ship in the old days,” says Dan.

Some of Dan’s favorite items include:

–         A personal manuscript on wine by political philosopher John Locke, written to his English mentor, Earl of Salisbury. “Here’s this great political scientist and he was collecting wine data,” Dan says.

–         A collection of works owned by Captain Gustave Niebaum, a founder of California wineries in the late 19th century, including Inglenook. Says Dan, “He wanted to amass in this country the greatest wine reference library that existed, so he had an open order to booksellers in Germany to send him anything, anytime, on wine. We fell upon [his 800-book collection] in a bookstore in Manhattan, almost all in German. We bought it and have been relishing it, examining it, for 35 years.”

–         The first edition of Cocks and Feret, an early 19th-century book on Bordeaux. “It’s a bible of wine, a reference work,” says Dan.

Published on April 26, 2008
Topics: American Food CultureFood HistoryTraditional Foods