Ten Thousand Days of What I Ate for Dinner

A friend from school recently posted a link to a New Yorker blog post by Roz Chast called “The Dinner Diaries.” In it, she talks about a friend of hers who found, after her father had died, that he had spent the past thirty years meticulously cataloging every meal he ate on 3”x5” cards.

Chast makes an interesting point, that this isn’t actually as unusual as it might seem at first: “These days…it’s easy to take a picture of your dinner plate, upload it from your cell phone, and share it with the world. But my friend’s father began his journal on a typewriter, long before the Web. It was a private project that required a commitment—or a compulsion.” I know plenty of people who do exactly what she describes, posting descriptions or images on Facebook or Twitter of meals they have eaten. Most people do this only occasionally, journalling dinner party triumphs or visits to fancy restaurants, but I do have one facebook friend who photographs and posts his dinner nightly. I’m still fighting the urge to send him a message letting him know that a cell phone camera has a tendency to cast a rather unappetizing glow on what I’m sure is perfectly delicious (or at least edible) in real life.

While my immediate reaction was that the kind of self-archiving Chast describes is a pretty clear indication of at least mild insanity, the truth is that it is arguably less crazy to keep this record for yourself than to think that the rest of the world might be as interested as you are in how many times you’ve eaten poached chicken in the past three decades. If this information or even just the action of keeping track of it was useful to the man who did it (to keep “track of the passage of time, or [to organize] his experience, just as other people sort their clothes by color, or alphabetize their books, or write down their dreams,” as Chast says), then who are we to say that his collection is less valuable than any other?

Personal value aside, though, there is no clear delineation between things that are insane to keep and things that would be a tragedy to let go of. We can never say for certain what information or which pieces of paper might be useful to someone and which have no business continuing to take up space on a shelf.

I’m currently working as an archival processing intern in the rare book and manuscript library of a major university. The first collection I processed consisted of the papers of a wealthy turn-of-the-century New York family, mostly personal letters pertaining to mundane matters. Three archival boxes, full of pages of pleasantries. For me, the most interesting part of the collection were the love letters, spanning seven years, sent to the father of the family (then an unmarried student) from a woman who was not to become his wife. In the first, it is obvious they have only just met; by the last few letters, there is a lot of “I just can’t do this anymore” stuff. I could imagine a Hollywood romance film (à la The Notebook) about them that would use the frame of the archivist, pulling them one by one out of their dusty envelopes, as a device.

The next collection I worked on was that of a high-society playboy who fancied himself a playwright; aside from the pedigree certificate for his dog, the collection consisted mostly of various drafts of plays that were never produced. The most interesting thing about working with this collection were the newspaper stories that I encountered while doing research for a biographical note, describing the scandals related to the playboy/wright’s many marriages to women from well-to-do families and to the public’s realization that the one play of his that was ever produced (scripts of which were not in the collection I was working on) was brazenly plagiarized from works by Oscar Wilde. Someone should write a play about him.

It’s not as though these collections have no merit. But though they could be the stuff of good fiction, I’m not sure what scholarly project they might serve. And there is perhaps a researcher out there for whom 10,000 index cards of main courses and side dishes would be the stuff of dreams. Such an idea is not even particularly far-fetched. Food history has become a discipline in its own right; and institutions such as NYU are building collections to support work in the field. This collection could provide evidence of changing trends in what Americans were eating over a period of time, for example.

The point is, some of what we as archivists have saved may never prove useful to anyone. It may never even be looked at. And so much of what we’ve let be lost may have been exactly what someone is or will be looking for. There isn’t any way to predict with 100% accuracy, or anywhere near it. It’s kind of heartbreaking, when you think about it.

Also, I can’t remember what I ate for dinner on Tuesday. Maybe this guy was on to something.

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