August 12, 2009
The Box Lunch Project
Tom Devaney, a terrific poet and friend of mine, teaches a perennial seminar at Penn on writing about food, variously titled “Food For Thought” or (in the advanced version) “The Art of Eating.” The University of Pennsylvania Libraries recently put together a book based on writing and research from his courses, making use of a unique archive:
The boxes contain more than 3,000 recipe booklets from church organizations, small to mid-sized companies, food manufacture PR departments, and far-flung community groups. Every sturdy box is labeled with the implacable title, Victus Populi. The items in each box are not high-end cookbooks, but are all over the map: stapled together mimeograph copies, eye-catching (often kitschy) promotional pamphlets, one-off recipe booklets.
The boxes intrigued me. Each Victus Populi case was an archive in its particular a category: Bread, Fruits, Nuts & Olives, Seafood, Cheese, Meats, International Foods, Condiments: Herbs & Spices, Salads & Sandwiches, Health & Diets, Leftovers: Quick & Easy, Chocolate, Ice Cream, and one devoted solely to JELL-O.
And so the assignment took shape. Each student would choose a box to write about. The student essays would chronicle their journey and search of the primary source materials. They would use both large brush strokes (to provide an overview of the box) and develop one or two finer points in greater detail. To finish, they would find and cull all but two recipes from hundreds in each box.
The Art of the Box Lunch contains four of these essays, plus a generation selection of images from the collection, and a long introductory essay by Tom. I’m really stunned by how gorgeous it is - and also now feeling quite shamed into coming up with a similarly cool project for my seminar students in the fall.
And I know you were waiting for the best part: The Art of the Box Lunch is also now available as a free PDF.