What menus can tell us about trends in design, culinary, economic, and urban history—and even the rise and fall of fish populations.
The New York Public Library's historic menu collection is one of the most impressive in the world, and its treasures are frequently featured on librarian Rebecca Federman's blog, Cooked Books. As part of Food For Thinkers, Federman chose a handful of curious examples—such as the way a childrens' section added to the Cafe Florent menu above tells the story of larger demographic changes in the neighborhood—to reflect on what makes menus such a fascinating subgenre within food writing.
Menus are ephemeral. They are used to convey information and when that information is no longer relevant, the item is often disposed of. The asparagus appetizer in April may not be available in August. The chocolate mousse from October 1st is not offered on October 31st.
However, like many pieces of ephemera, a menu's informational value rarely stems from its original, intended use. And that, for me, is where things get interesting.