AMHERST — Michael Lesy and Lisa Stoffer’s “Repast: Dining Out at the Dawn of the New American Century, 1900-1910” looks at an era very different from ours. Menus groaned with rich dishes. Pure food, not organic, was the rage. Fast food was just beginning to emerge, at places like the Childs restaurant chain and the Automat.
The culinary world of the early 1900s was almost as different from today as the tech world was. Computer? What’s a computer? Yet cyberspace is where “Repast” began.
Lesy, 67, teaches at Hampshire College. He’s the author of a dozen works of cultural history and analysis. Their subjects range from heroism to family photographs to 1920s Chicago. His best-known book is “Wisconsin Death Trip” (1973).
Before the New York Public Library unveiled an online redesign, in 2007, it asked a number of experts, including Lesy, to test-drive its website, so to speak, and offer suggestions. Lesy found a tab labeled The Buttolph Menu Collection. Intrigued, he clicked his mouse. What he found was a treasure trove of thousands of restaurant menus assembled by a woman named Frank E. Buttolph. Lesy was captivated. “The menus were so goddamned beautiful!” he says over lunch with Stoffer at an Amherst restaurant, 30Boltwood.
Lesy showed the collection to Stoffer, 48. She’s director of foundation and corporation relations at Amherst College. She’s also Lesy’s wife and, he notes, far more knowledgeable about food. That knowledge is a family legacy. Her great-grandfather and grandfather were chefs. The latter worked at 30Boltwood, in fact, where he met Stoffer’s grandmother, a waitress there.
Stoffer was as drawn to the collection as Lesy was. Its richest holdings were at the turn of the 20th century. The more they looked into the period, the more interesting it became from a culinary standpoint. Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. The first Horn & Hardart Automat restaurant opened in 1902. The number of US restaurants increased by 78 percent in the first decade of the century. Thanks to the growing popularity of Chinese restaurants, Americans were making their first tentative explorations of what we now think of as ethnic cuisine. “The Chinese restaurants were [considered] risque and louche,” Lesy explains, “associated with opium and white slavery. So going out for chop suey was this edgy thing.”
A constellation of culinary and cultural developments this rich got Lesy to thinking about not just a book but a coauthor. A widower, he had married Stoffer, who was divorced, in 2004. “I’d never been with someone whose basic idea of table talk is food,” he says, and they both laugh. “So I thought to myself, why not make it into more than table talk? The collaboration of marriage, [literary] partnership, the table talk, it just seemed to fit.”
“It was fun,” Stoffer says of the five years spent working together on the book. If their affectionate give and take over lunch is any indication, it must have been. They complement each other the way a good pitcher and catcher do. Lesy has a nervy intensity on the mound. Stoffer, relaxed and alertly amiable behind the plate, fields even his hardest throws with seeming ease.
Lesy and Stoffer complemented each other in another way. “When he’s working really intensively, he loses weight,” Stoffer says with a laugh. “When I’m working intensively, I put on weight.”
She notes that they employed a division of labor. “We divided up the subject matter based on our interests.” Lesy took pure food and ethnic food, for example, while Stoffer researched women and food (this was a time when restaurants were nearly as likely to have separate dining rooms for men and women as separate restrooms).
“What we conspired to do was create some kind of history that was more than just analytic or ordinary or visual design,” Lesy says of the copiously illustrated “Repast” (many of the illustrations come from the Buttolph collection), “but also taste and smell and experience.”
In that aim, they were following the model of the woman who had inspired the project. “Miss Buttolph understood she wasn’t just collecting menus,” Lesy says. “In a weird way,” agrees Stoffer, “she wasn’t interested in the food.” What they’re trying to do in “Repast,” they say, is what Buttolph was doing with her menus: offer a window on society at a particular point in time, a window that’s all the more revealing for being unusual. “Food leads everywhere,” Lesy says.