The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Janice Bluestein Longone, doyenne of cookbook collectors, dies at 89

Her archive of thousands of antiquarian cookbooks helped give food a place at the table of history

Janice Bluestein Longone collected thousands of historical cookbooks, including this one, “Child Life Cook Book,” one of her favorites. (Larry E. Wright/Ann Arbor News via AP)
8 min

Janice Bluestein Longone, an antiquarian bookseller who gathered thousands of cookbooks and other relics of the American kitchen in a collection that helped give food a place at the table of history, died Aug. 3 at a nursing home in Ann Arbor, Mich. She was 89.

She had congestive heart failure, said her nephew Jay Bluestein.

Mrs. Longone had no doctoral degree in history, no formal training in library science and no Michelin star to her name. But over more than half a century, she amassed an archive of gastronomy that is revered among chefs, scholars and gourmands as an unparalleled repository of culinary history. Julia Child and James Beard were among the cooks and cookbook authors said to have turned to Mrs. Longone, a self-described “digger,” for her help locating particularly hard-to-find recipes or volumes.

The Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive, housed since the early 2000s at the University of Michigan, includes more than 20,000 cookbooks, menus, pamphlets, labels, posters, and product advertisements. Together those materials help reveal not only the history of American cuisine but also American history itself — the arrival of immigrants who brought with them the foods of their homeland, the feminist movement and the changing roles of women in the home and in society, even the effect of the introduction of refrigeration in American homes.

“Women’s voices, which are so often lost, were very much found in cookbooks, and the collection she acquired was extraordinary,” Ruth Reichl, the food writer and former editor in chief of Gourmet magazine, said in an interview. “She saw in [a cookbook] much more than recipes. She really saw that it was a way to understand the past.”

At its inception, Mrs. Longone’s collection was a project undertaken to satisfy her personal curiosity. The daughter of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, she grew up in a Boston tenement and remembered the kitchen as the center of her family’s home. She gained much of her early knowledge about food from her lifetime subscription to Gourmet magazine, a gift from her husband when they were newlyweds in 1954.

Mrs. Longone began collecting historical cookbooks and in 1972 opened the Wine and Food Library, a bookstore that she operated from her home in Ann Arbor. It quickly grew in renown, attracting a devoted coterie of mail-order clients as well as cooking aficionados who detoured great distances to peruse her teeming shelves. For old volumes, prices ranged from $10 to $8,000.

“She was the doyenne of American cookbook dealers,” said Bonnie Slotnick, the owner of Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, an out-of-print and antiquarian bookstore in Manhattan. “I don’t know if there is anybody else who is around today who could come anywhere near her.”

Mrs. Longone kept her personal collection of cookbooks in her living room and books for sale in the basement. Volumes were organized by topic but “certainly … not using the Dewey Decimal system,” Nick Malgieri, a noted pastry chef and author who frequented Mrs. Longone’s store, admiringly recalled. Any such attempt at rigid categorization would have “collapsed under the weight of the sheer quantities of difficult-to-classify books,” he remarked.

Mrs. Longone’s collection was most robust in its holdings from the 19th and early 20th centuries but extended into the 18th and the 21st. She recalled her indignation when, at a conference in Oxford, England, someone declared that “America doesn’t have any history, much less culinary history.” Mrs. Longone responded with a thorough rejoinder, she told the St. Petersburg Times, citing such dishes as Rhode Island apple slump, Florida guava preserve, Idaho miner’s bread and a recipe she called “Kansas Poor Man’s Pudding.”

In addition to more formally bound cookbooks, Mrs. Longone collected homespun “charity cookbooks” published, often by women, as fundraisers for churches or other houses of worship and for causes such as women’s suffrage.

“Women used what they knew, what they could to champion their causes,” Mrs. Longone, a frequent speaker on culinary topics, once observed in a lecture. “If that meant baking a cake or cooking a dinner or writing a cookbook, they did that.”

Among her most notable holdings was the only known copy of “A Domestic Cook Book” by Malinda Russell, an 1866 text that Mrs. Langone determined to be “the earliest unequivocally Black-authored American work devoted solely to cookery.” It had arrived to her at the bottom of a box of other items.

“When it came in, I almost passed out,” Mrs. Longone told the Detroit News in 2020. “I was astonished: Here was a book nobody had ever heard of — and I had the only copy of it! I thought, ‘This is probably one of the most important books in America.’ ”

Mrs. Longone also sourced a copy of the “Jewish Cookery Book,” an 1871 volume that, according to the Forward, is generally believed to the first Jewish cookbook published in the United States.

She collected mountains of items known among archivists as “ephemera” — restaurant menus, brochures, advertisements for products such as Jell-O, a World War I-era poster calling upon Americans to help “re-chickenize devastated France.”

“She was interested in all of those everyday items that surround us, but most of us, we look at them but don’t think about their deeper meaning because they’re not high art,” said Darra Goldstein, the founding editor of the food journal Gastronomica.

“My vision is to create the best collection in the world for the study of American culinary history,” Mrs. Longone told the Newhouse News Service, “and to have it catalogued properly for the use of historians.”

For all the obscurities and exotica that her bookstore and collection contained, Mrs. Longone said the request she most frequently received was for “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book,” the best-selling cookbook in American history, with 75 million sold since it was introduced in 1950. “Nostalgia,” Mrs. Longone told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, by way of explanation.

Janice Barbara Bluestein was born in Boston on July 31, 1933. Her father sold kitchen wares, and her mother was a homemaker. Her parents did not keep kosher but served traditional Jewish food, and they always ate as a family.

“I grew up in a household where I knew the importance of food,” she told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “and the importance of sharing it with people and sitting around a table and talking — whether you were 3 years old or 93.”

Mrs. Longone received a bachelor’s degree in education and history at what is now Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts in 1954. She and her husband, Daniel T. Longone, her childhood sweetheart, both attended graduate school at Cornell University, where they hosted international students for meals. Mrs. Longone embarked on her study of American cuisine in part to show those students that one existed.

“I started looking for and finding and then collecting books,” she told the Forward, “and unbeknownst to me I must have decided I was going to open an antiquarian cookbook shop because I had been buying every book I could find in rare book shops but I’d buy four copies.”

It was also during those years that she began her readership of Gourmet magazine. To the devastation of epicureans everywhere, the magazine was discontinued in 2009. Six years later, when a reporter inquired about the matter, Mrs. Longone was still on the hunt for the one issue of the magazine missing from her collection — the edition of March 1941.

Mrs. Longone and her husband settled in Ann Arbor, where he became a chemistry professor at the University of Michigan. Besides her husband, of Ann Arbor, survivors include a brother.

Mrs. Longone wrote for Gastronomica, penning a column called “Notes on Vintage Volumes,” and was a contributor to reference guides including “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America.” The encyclopedia, a reporter for the Toledo Blade once noted, would have been incomplete without an entry on Mrs. Longone; it described her as a “scholar, sleuth, collector, rare book dealer, lecturer, and … mentor and prime resource for countless food professionals, academicians, authors, entrepreneurs, and journalists.”

Visitors to Mrs. Longone’s shop and collection might have been surprised to learn that she did not cook from cookbooks, or at least not directly. She preferred to survey multiple recipes for a particular dish, combining the most appealing elements of each into a creation of her own.

Of her most enduring creation — her collection — she once told the Detroit Free Press that “it’s me. It’s who I am. It’s not just a profession or a hobby.”

She took satisfaction in the knowledge, she said, that long after her death, the archive would remain available for anyone who is curious, as she had been, about the dishes and traditions of the past. The cookbooks that had made their way across the generations to hers would be waiting for still new ones.

“Isn’t it wonderful that somebody saved all these things?” she said.