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Hit the books, er, Web

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Sometimes it's tough to find out what you want to know about an ingredient or the history of a dish. Many cookbooks, such as the The All-New, All-Purpose Joy of Cooking, include comprehensive glossaries explaining the origins and functions of foodstuffs. Other food books, such as Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, practically exhaust not only the cultural but the chemical explanations of the culinary. And of course, magazines such as Saveur routinely suss out the stories behind, say, spaghetti alla carbonara or Sriracha chili sauce.

But what if you don't have a book or magazine handy? Or the paper products just aren't cutting it?

Try the library — not the building, but the website version. Most municipal library systems have searchable databases of not just their books but also articles and database subscriptions; if you want a New York Times article from a few years back, say, or access to a biographical summary of Escoffier, the bibliofiles are the way to go.

Of course, you usually need a valid local library card to log on to these databases. That's where sites such as the Food Timeline fill in. The Food Timeline, run by the New Jersey reference librarian Lynne Olver, is a no-frills website offering cited historical info about pretty much every type of food ever invented, along with, yes, a timeline. 

First item on the timeline? Water and ice, followed by salt. Pretty essential. Last item? Deep-fried Coca-Cola, which apparently dates way back to 2006. Not so essential, but entertaining nonetheless.

The Food Timeline lists not just foods and dishes (on the left) but recipes and books (on the right). Who knew that licorice (2000 B.C.) predated tomatoes (900 B.C.)? Or that A1 Steak Sauce and chicken-fried steak were both invented in 1824?

Despite all the dates, Olver's site warns, "Recipes are not invented. They evolve." Nobody, apparently, thought of calling battered-and-fried beef "chicken-fried steak" until the mid-20th century. Who knows what we'll call it in another 100 years? Entrecôte croquante?_