Lisa Stoffer '87 Explores Culinary History
Lisa Stoffer '87 comes from a long line of chefs. Her grandfather worked his way up from cooking on a private yacht while still in his teens to running the kitchen at the Lord Jeffrey Inn in Amherst, Mass. And her great-grandfather was a hotel resort chef in Bermuda in the early 1900s and ran a Boston restaurant. So it makes sense that Stoffer, who works as Amherst College’s director of foundation and corporate relations, would choose the world of food as the topic for her first book, Repast: Dining Out at the Dawn of the New American Century, 1900–1910.
“I think we’re a really food driven society,” she says. “Food is so fundamental to what everyone does. [Eating] is one of the essential things that people of every social class and circumstance do, so you can learn a lot about people by tracing what they ate.”
Repast, which was nominated for a 2014 International Association of Culinary Professionals Award, is a culinary tour of early-20th-century dining—from the then-new, sexy trend of ethnic eating in big-city Chinatowns across America to the introduction of the country’s earliest “fast food” with the birth of the Automat. Created with Michael Lesy, a literary journalism professor at Hampshire College and the author of some 11 nonfiction books, including the cult classic Wisconsin Death Trip, the well-researched book tells the story of the rich, cream-sauced worlds of fine dining in tandem with the story of the industrial revolution’s impact on food culture. Like many of Lesy’s other books, Repast is replete with period images: Photographs, old timey newspaper ads for cereals and products unappetizingly described as “salad creams,” and reproductions of antique menus culled from the New York Public Library’s Buttolph Menu Collection are woven throughout.
The book thus represents a marriage of the worlds of its two creators—hers of cooking and food, and his of photographic histories and literary journalism—which makes sense, since the two authors are, in fact, married to each other.
“The best analogy I can come up with [for writing a book with your spouse] is that it’s like taking a major trip with someone … with whom you’ve never traveled before,” says Stoffer. “You may think you know the person, but really you get to know them in a different way.”
Stoffer and Lesy worked by splitting up the five major chapters, researching and writing about their chosen topics separately, and then editing the book collaboratively. He took on the era’s ethnic food, the introduction of early fast-food chain restaurants, and the “pure-food scandals” that resulted in the government’s first food-regulation law in 1906. She wrote about high-end dining and the travails of women in an era when they were often seated in separate rooms (or turned away) at restaurants when they didn’t have a male companion—and about the first generations of working women who had to contend with the rules of propriety while finding a place to eat during their lunch breaks.
“I think for working-class women, who simply didn’t have that much money to spend on food, it was hard to find affordable places that wouldn’t make you sick,” says Stoffer. “But there was at least a kind of freedom to go to a quick lunch or to go to a saloon. Once women got into the middle-class mindset of what’s proper and appropriate, it got a lot scarier in some ways. I think those women struggled in a different way to find places to eat. … Men didn’t know how to behave toward women who were newly independent and on their own, and so they behaved inappropriately a lot of the time. Women diners faced a surprising amount of rude behavior and sometimes downright harassment.”
But the most surprising thing Stoffer discovered while researching the era was how similar the early 20th century’s attitude toward food was to today’s. “Even though there have been tremendous changes in our society, a lot of the same things obsess us,” she says. “Is our food healthy? Is it convenient? Are people cooking enough? Are people eating together enough at home? Are we eating too much? Are we eating the wrong things? Do we need to go on a diet? We’re still wondering the same things.”
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Haverford magazine.