Janice Longone, prominent culinary historian who helped Julia Child and James Beard, has died

Robin Watson
Special to The Detroit News

Janice Bluestein Longone, hailed as the country’s most prominent culinary historian, died on Aug. 3 at age 89.

Well before food television, Amazon, eBay, cookbook stores and university food studies programs, culinary luminaries such as Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard and Craig Claiborne sought Longone’s help when they needed deep background for their work. Through the Food and Wine Library, the mail-order bookshop she launched out of her home in Ann Arbor in the 1970s, Longone sourced and sold rare cookbooks that were almost impossible to find elsewhere and that often revealed much about society and history in general.

Jan Longone

One of Longone’s foremost finds was the only known copy of “A Domestic Cook Book,” by Malinda Russell. It’s the earliest known cookbook authored by an African American woman and was published in Paw Paw, Michigan, in 1866. 

“Jan Longone was an amazing source of wisdom that sprang from her curiosity and her sense of rigorous investigation,” says Matt Sartwell, owner of Kitchen Arts & Letters in New York. “She wasn't content to accept received wisdom, and she never seemed to feel that any story had already been fully told. Her work was foundational to the growth of food scholarship in the U.S. and worldwide. I suspect that many people in the field today don't know how much of a debt they owe her.”

Over the years, Longone, a Boston native, hosted a radio show, founded the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor, wrote for many publications, curated exhibits, gave talks on culinary history and helped restaurant owners open and sustain their operations. With her eidetic memory, Longone could often quickly find what customers and clients needed, sometimes right down to the section or page.

“She seemed to know, off the top of her head, almost every cookbook ever printed,” says Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor. “When we needed to know about something unusual, we’d reach out to Jan. Her influence and knowledge really helped us enormously as we tried to get our feet on the ground. Without her help, who knows what would have happened.”

Longone and her husband, Dan, a wine expert and University of Michigan chemistry professor emeritus, donated their collection of more than 20,000 books, ephemera and pieces of research to form the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive housed at U of M.

“The Collection supports a growing number of courses focused on the role of food and drink in society,” says curator Juli McLoone, “as well as research into social and household history and the 20th Century industrialization of the American food system — plus representations and expectations surrounding gender roles, race and class in society.”

“Jan was always exceptionally generous with her time and knowledge,” Weinzweig says. “She made a difference in so many people’s lives — probably half the well-known chefs in the country mail-ordered books from Jan.”

Some were lucky enough to be gifted with books she selected herself.

“We connected so quickly over the love of cookbooks,” says Kieron Hales, Managing Partner at Zingerman’s Cornman Farms in Dexter. “She would find treasures in my personal collection that I had forgotten.”

A British ex-pat, Hales recalls Longone gave him a copy of “Good Things in England,” published in the 1930s, to celebrate the 2014 barn raising at Cornman Farms.

“We used it for a recipe for the “Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie” Inaugural Book Club Dinner we held at the farm, which I’m pretty sure she attended,” he says. “Funnily enough, I already had a copy of that book from my mum’s collection, which was a loverly connection for me. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend time with Jan over the years.”