Some distant day a culinary archaeologist will sift through our landfills of tossed water bottles and tubes of whole-grain Pringles, our packets of baby carrots rebranded as "junk food," and the elephantine soda cups called Big Gulps with an eye to answering the eternal question: "How did Americans really live - and eat - back then?"

One can only hope, in that event, that she brings to the table the same biting insight and humor and delight in backstories that William Woys Weaver does in his latest, lavishly illustrated food history, Culinary Ephemera.

Q: How come a Victorian seed pack was graced, he wonders, with the image of a top-hatted Mr. Tomato representing "The Mikado"?

A: The 1885 Gilbert and Sullivan operetta of the same name was the rage at the time, its mojo appropriated for everything from popcorn bags to early hybrid tomato seeds.)

Q: Why did the image of the Quaker end up on labels for products such as wild cherry syrup, biscuits, and oatmeal?

A: He was the symbol of trustworthiness and purity in an era, over a century ago, when food adulteration was rampant. His day is past, though, Weaver declaims: Amish, he says, is the new Quaker.

A prolific Devon-based food historian, Weaver is better known for writings on more enduring things - the foodways of the Pennsylvania Dutch, the travails of heirloom varieties of beans.

So dabbling in the world of paper ephemera seems an odd departure. That is, until you realize that it's his parallel universe - the candid snapshots below the family portrait over the mantel.

Indeed, most of the labels and pamphlets in the book are from Weaver's own Roughwood Collection, stashed in the same rambling stone home on the Main Line as his precious jars of seeds and his hand-carved cookie molds.

If formal cookbooks are the view from the culinary skybox, he suggests, this throwaway stuff - the labels and snack bags, the matchbook covers and wrappers - is the view from the cheap seats; "tattletale stories" that he argues paint a fuller, more intimate picture of what it means (or meant) to be alive and at table at a given moment - the American persona captured on the run, the sunglasses off, chugging coffee on a Tuesday morning.

In that regard, Weaver's work joins other well-observed looks at popular food culture by local writers, in particular Thomas Hine's The Total Package, on the social history of packaging, and Len Davidson's Vintage Neon, which explores the glory years (the 1940s and '50s) of vintage neon signage.

The chronicle of passing fancies is not without ironic moments: A 1941 Saturday Evening Post cover of high-society types wolfing down burgers appears over a tout for a story called "The Death of a Nation." But it's about politics, not, as it seems from 2010, about diet.

Nor is everything sweetness and light. Weaver includes early images of Aunt Jemima that now make us wince. Chinese imagery, colored by fears of tidal immigration, also skews negative. Not so for depictions of Japanese, considered more cultured and less threatening. At least before Pearl Harbor. See: Mikado, above.

Weaver traces the rise of the recipe-heavy culinary almanac as the successor to the agricultural original as Americans left the land for factory jobs. (One, issued by the Rumford Chemical Works in 1906, employed cover art of a bonneted little girl in a field of wheat to telegraph the purity of its newfangled baking powder, eyed skeptically in its first outings as a replacement for natural yeast.)

We see die-cut hanging corncob signs advertising Red Seal canned corn in "outside-soldered cans." This telegraphed a big advance in Victorian times: Cans were often contaminated by being soldered with metal toxins on the inside. So soldering the outside rim only was a major public-health coup.

We witness the curious journey of the broad-brimmed Quaker, associated with the transparency inherent in William Penn's fair dealing with the native Indians. He shows up, disingenuously, before the Civil War on patent medicine bottles; later on biscuit labels, his treaty scroll unfurled to read "Penn's treaty with Walter G. Wilson to supply the world with biscuit"; and, finally and enduringly, on boxes of Quaker Oats.

Though here, typically, Weaver doesn't settle for mere recounting. Actual Quakers, he interjects, may be dismayed that "none of the company's food products are subjected to the winnowing philosophies most dear to Quakers today - such as a vegan diet, organic food, and sustainable agriculture."

He snipes at hot dog-makers burying low-grade meat "under the brilliant yellow glow of artificially colored mustard." He notes the end of Russian caviar advertising as World War II opens, but saves his bitterest words for what came next - the postwar rise of hybrid vegetables goose-stepping across the landscape, stamping out old ways of saving seeds and farming, ushering in the corn-based economy that unleashed the excesses of today's fast-food industry.

What then, looking back, will our own castoffs reveal? Will cartons of "cage-free eggs" seem quaint precursors in a new era of pasteurized egg products? Will claims of "local and organic" seem as misappropriated as Penn's old image? Will the Big Gulp - and the video game - signal the advent of a permanent obese underclass?

Or will the culinary ephemera of the digital age reach warp speed, a slide show gone berserk, as loath to yield deeper or more-lasting meaning, in the end, as yesterday's fad diet - or fake tattoo?

"Culinary Ephemera, An Illustrated History," by William Woys Weaver, University of California Press, $39.95.
Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.