Menu History
November 20, 2002 6:02 PM   Subscribe

In the long stretch of culinary history, the creation of the menu was a notable development. In the U.S., New York is the restaurant capital, and the New York Public Library has an enormous collection of menus, many of which they are currently displaying in a third-floor gallery. If you're in NYC (or will be visiting this winter) and are interested in such things, don't miss it; it's showing until March 1.
posted by languagehat (14 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Opened on William Street as a confectioner’s shop in 1827, Delmonico’s was New York’s (and the country’s) first real restaurant

Just out of curiousity, what makes something a real restaurant, and what kind of food-for-money establishments could one expect to find before 1827? Why wouldn't a tavern or a coach-house count as a real restaurant?
posted by wanderingmind at 6:26 PM on November 20, 2002

And if you're in Boston and interested in culinary and women's history, check out the Schlesinger library at Harvard. They have the largest collection of cookbooks and menus, plus Seventeen magazine editions since its creation in 1944. One of only two Harvard libraries open to the public.
posted by whatzit at 6:28 PM on November 20, 2002

Forget finals, I'm going to tour menu collections of New England instead! If you're really into this stuff but not in N.E., try Food history news. Proof that newletters exist for everything.
posted by whatzit at 6:31 PM on November 20, 2002

Oh. This is a good post. I'm a menu freak - love all that gorgeous hand lettering and those little flourishes and doodads that people always seemed to add to their menus before the advent of "desktop publishing". Now diner menus, which used to be quirky and charming and reflective of their creator, all look like they were created using the "My First Bistro" Template in Print Shop Pro. Clipart is the downfall of Western Civilization, I tells ya, people!

This menu is wonderful - all that pretty hand lettering again, and lions and eagles duking it out amongst bunches of water lilies. If only the artist had thought to put the word Punch there, instead of all by its lonesome behing the chair.

This menu fascinates me. I think that thing is supposed to be an oyster shell? A very hairy oyster shell? I think a trip to NYC is required here. Must see these for myself.
posted by iconomy at 7:17 PM on November 20, 2002

Q: what makes something a real restaurant, and what kind of food-for-money establishments could one expect to find before 1827

A: The Union Oyster House

and this cook thanks languagehat for the most excellent post
posted by dchase at 7:41 PM on November 20, 2002

I was just cruising through google for a good coney sauce and happened to wander of to MeFi and low and behold, a culinary mecca. Ms. Clav is even interested (food time line link) and she ain't interested in nuttin concerning the web. What a resource. I know New Yorkers make the best coney dogs but we folks in michigan come in a close second. IM HUNGRY, even though i just polished off a late night omlet.
I'm book marking these.

great post LH. mefi platinum.
posted by clavdivs at 8:48 PM on November 20, 2002

I forgot to comment on the first link. The culinary timeline (which is amazing) links to the Gode Cookery site, which is a wealth of medieval recipes, amongst other things. One of the recipes is for a gingerbread of the type that's brought to Sir Thopas in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It's almost fudge-like in consistency, and very spicy. I just made it last night and it's truly wonderful.
posted by iconomy at 9:08 PM on November 20, 2002

languagehat, you've outdone yourself - this is the most exquisite treasure trove of links - art, food & living history combined, oh joy. I love menus - I've written copy for a few in my day, and the research phase was sure fun. Some of the cookbooks and food advertising on these sites look wonderful too. Thank you for posting this great stuff!

iconomy, I am in 100% agreement with you - clipart is a scourge of civilization and the enemy of all right thinking people everywhere.

whatzit, thanks for the tip on the Schlesinger Library - this is not the first good pointer you've given me to resources right in my own backyard - I am going to start following you around mefi from now on!
posted by madamjujujive at 9:53 PM on November 20, 2002

A bit of context for the first restaurant claims, in particular the origin of the term restaurant and some intellectual property disputes; it seems that the end of the aristocracy in France put a number of skilled kitchen operators out of work, and they dealt with this dot-comte fallout by starting their own businesses, attracting patrons with specialized dishes, and the industry of 'dining out' was born.
posted by dhartung at 10:37 PM on November 20, 2002

The Los Angeles Public Library has a monster searchable database of their menu collection. I like this pretty one for a little spot with the charming name Bullock's Tea Room. I also stumbled across this results page showing the menu for a Christmas fete at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite for which Ansel Adams evidently directed the pageant as well as providing the photograph for the menu cover.

To get returns that include only menus that have online images, include an asterisk in the last search field.
posted by taz at 11:42 PM on November 20, 2002

Thanks, everyone, for the great links (and pats on the back), especially dhartung for the history (note that the first link says M. Boulanger served "sheep’s feet simmered in a white sauce" and the second says "sheep's fat in white sauce"!) and taz for the amazing LA database (I put "French" in the cuisine field and got quite an array of places, including some in Paris). I should add that the NYPL display includes not only menus but photographs (including exteriors of Delmonico's at three of its nine locations), cartoons, New Yorker covers, and the like; there's a whole subdisplay just on the World's Fair of 1939-40, which essentially created the modern restaurant scene in NYC when the French restaurateur Henri Soulé was stranded here by the German invasion of France and started his own place, first Le Pavillon and then La Côte Basque, while cooks who worked under him left to start their own (famously La Caravelle).
posted by languagehat at 7:26 AM on November 21, 2002

languagehat : you deserve a smoked salmon cigar for this post .
posted by taratan at 7:43 AM on November 21, 2002

The New York Times had a piece recently which mentioned the "New York Eats Out" exhibit as well as another exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York on Horn & Hardart's automats. The article also recommends a few promising books on these topics.

incidentally, I was reminded of the automat earlier today by this and this.
posted by Songdog at 9:33 AM on November 21, 2002

So I went back to the exhibit today, and this time I picked up one of the handouts that describe the exhibits and reproduce a few. The first thing I notice is that the very first photograph, "1. 'Delmonico's, 212 Fifth Ave., cor., 26th St.,' New York," is wrongly labeled. I go across the room to the Special Collections Office, knock, and distract the kindly gentleman within from his computer-gazing. (No, he wasn't on MeFi, alas.) "Excuse me, but this isn't the 26th St. Delmonico's, it's the one on 44th St.," sez I. I take him to display case #1 and show him the two photos, correctly labeled. "You're right," sez he, "I'll tell them downstairs. I hope they fix it." So do I, and I urge any of you who visit to check for it. (The correct caption is shown on their website.) Now you all know what kind of nitpicker becomes an editor. (I also took a walk down to Madison Square and had a look at 212 Fifth, which is now vacant but whose most recent tenant was Fox, a sad comedown.)
posted by languagehat at 12:07 PM on November 21, 2002

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