As a burgeoning home cook (as well as an established collector of detritus), I recently cracked open a 1941 Better Homes and Gardens cookbook that I’d picked up, seeking a nostalgic recipe for a Sunday afternoon. I knew that heavy cream and ketchup were prevalent ingredients of the past, but I was nonetheless shocked by recipes that called for ingredients touched by only the most adventurous cooks today: tongue, copious amounts of lard, and an “anything goes” approach to gelatin (read: aspic). The experience raised all manner of questions about what we can learn from our predecessors by what they ate.
Whether it was hard tack on the prairie or oysters in New York, there is much to be garnered from materials that already exist in archives. In fact, The New York Public Library has recently launched a menu transcription project, cheekily titled “What’s on the Menu?”, that seeks to crowd-source their vast archive, dish by dish. With approximately 40,000 menus dating from the 1840s to the present, the NYPL’s restaurant menu collection is one of the largest in the world, used by historians, chefs, novelists and everyday food enthusiasts. The issue is that these menus are very difficult to search for the greatest treasures they contain: specific information about dishes, prices, the organization of meals, and all the stories these things tell us about the history of food and culture.
As such, the NYPL appeals to the public:
“Transcribing these menus will allow us to dramatically expand the ways in which the collection can be researched and accessed, opening the door to new kinds of discoveries. We’ve built a simple tool that makes the transcribing pretty easy to do, but it’s a big job, so we need your help.
“Researchers who use the collection — be they historians, chefs, nutritional scientists, or novelists looking for a juicy period detail — often have very specific questions they’re trying to answer. Where were oysters served in 19th century New York and how did their varieties and cost change over time? When did apple pie first appear on the Library’s menus? What about pizza? What was the price of a cup of coffee in 1907? To find out these sorts of things more easily, we need to extract all the delicious data frozen as pixels inside these digital menu photos. The best way to do this is transcription.”
Learn more about the project, its goals and how you can get involved at the NYPL’s website.
What’s the cultural benefit of archiving our food? And how would you describe the menus of today?