The New York Public Library's collection over 40,000 menus
January 19, 2023 10:04 PM   Subscribe

This is delightful.
Visitors are forbidden from photographing the space itself, only photos of the requisitioned documents are permitted
Wait. What?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:26 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]

Love this, thanks for posting!

Meanwhile, eight-year old children would like to know how you pronounce "The Buttolph collection"

go ahead, say it again! [snicker]
posted by chavenet at 2:44 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]

This is fascinating, thanks! I love these kind of mundane looks into the past.
posted by uncleozzy at 4:29 AM on January 20

This is great! The L.A. Public Library also has a (smaller) collection, which only occurred to me because I remembered posting it here, um, 20 years ago. The link, surprisingly, has changed!
posted by staggernation at 5:35 AM on January 20 [3 favorites]

The Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University also has a huge collection, including almost 5000 items tagged as "menu":

Drop me a line if you're ever in Providence, RI, and I can show you around!
posted by wenestvedt at 6:09 AM on January 20 [5 favorites]

Ran across this recently when I was reminiscing about a certain deli with a crazy menu from my childhood. It is indeed delightful.
posted by adamrice at 6:55 AM on January 20 [4 favorites]

I love this collection. Thank you for this article! I didn't know anything about Miss Frank Buttolph. She sounds like a woman who deserved more outlets, and I'm glad they let her build this one.

I follow a FB page called Eating History which posts old menus from this collection, among other things. Not long ago it posted a number of White House menus from, among other things, Harry Truman's time. Those were pretty funny to me because it was just, you know, food for a cranky old guy and his wife in the 40s, yet it was somebody's job to type it up properly every night, apparently.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:10 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]

Interesting to see how many they have by year. Of course survival of primary source material is always haphazard, esp for things as ephemeral as this (One fanatic collector for one year who happens to donate to the collection can off the skew considerably), but even so, the peaks and valleys do make one wonder. I mean, lots from the 1930s, few from the 1970s. I'll have to dig through some boxes, I may have a few things of interest for them.
posted by BWA at 7:56 AM on January 20

I have a question about old menus. They often have several courses with like 4-6 options listed for each. So, relishes, soup, fish, entree, vegetable, cheese and nuts, etc. When ordering are you meant to pick one of each for a full meal with each course represented or do you just pick 1-2 things like we would nowadays?
posted by blnkfrnk at 8:28 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]

Here's what I think it means. Restaurants and formal hosts used to do service a la russe, where you received a plate and then a waiter came around and offered you a serving of each as you sat. When I was a girl, at a very old-fashioned restaurant, I encountered this. We received a warm plate with a "main" course, the meat or fish that we had ordered, and the waiter offered vegetables, potatoes, and a roll to each of us. In the days of dinner parties, hosts might prepare as many options as they wanted to be seen to afford.

The pre-19th century style was service a la francaise, which was more like today's family-style dining, although it could be very formal. All the dishes were laid on the table, and diners served each other and themselves from the nearest plates. What you got to eat depended pretty much on where you were seated, which depended on your rank and seniority. Today, when the dishes are laid out like that, you just ask somebody to pass you the sweet potatoes, and they ask somebody else if they have to, but when you're seated with bishops and ladies and so on, it's trickier.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:50 AM on January 20 [7 favorites]

I've always been fascinated by old menus. The catalog is bookmarked for much later perusal.

Meanwhile, eight-year old children would like to know how you pronounce "The Buttolph collection"

Hey, she worked her Buttolph building this archive!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:42 AM on January 20 [5 favorites]

Service a la russe sounds a lot like some dim sum restaurants with the wandering servers. And thank you!
posted by blnkfrnk at 9:52 AM on January 20

Awesome, one of my favorite horror genres is pre-WWI restaurant menus and cookbooks.
posted by rhizome at 1:03 PM on January 20

They could have 9 different types of wild fowl because market hunting was big business in the 19th and early 20th century. Punt guns, essentially giant shotguns mounted to a canoe, could take a flock of birds on the water with one shot. We are very, very lucky that conservation in the US took of when it did and had well connected folks like Teddy Roosevelt to help push it. Many species of fowl, White tail deer and wild turkeys were all close to being extinct at one point to feed the US's booming cities.

Anyways, this is cool. I love old menus.
posted by nestor_makhno at 4:41 PM on January 20 [4 favorites]

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