What’s on the Menu? Database

The New York Public Library runs a database called “What’s on the Menu?”  The database’s organizers have scoured restaurant menus from the 1840s until the present day to illustrate the kinds of food people ate and how much they paid for their meals.  This website shows that when used as primary sources, menus provide fascinating insights that tie cultural, economic and social history together.

The website breaks down into a few headings, perhaps the most important of which are entitled “Menus,” “Data,” Dishes,” and “Blog.”  By clicking on “Menus,” visitors can see pictures of actual menus from restaurants from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Viewers can click on the images to see them in larger, blown up versions that are easy to read.  I am not entirely certain as to what the “Data” section is supposed to be used for.  The database’s designers encourage viewers to use this section for their own research and projects, but unfortunately the “data” that the website offers is largely unreadable.  There are a few links that open up as Excel documents, but when I looked at them they were largely written in “computer language” that seemed to have no rhyme or reason and appeared to lack significance.  The “Dishes” section allows viewers to explore specific items from various menus.  Clicking on  “Fruit Salad with Whipped Cream,” for instance, takes viewers to the exact menu and page that the dish is found in.  People can then see exactly how the dish was classified (as an “entrée,” “appetizer,” etc.) and how it compares in price to other items.  The “Blog” section brings viewers to the New York Public Library’s main blog.  Unfortunately, there isn’t an abundance of posts related to What’s on the Menu?  However, the blog is useful for highlighting what else the New York Public Library is focusing on at the moment.

The Library admits that the database is a work in progress.  The project began last year and so far, the project seems off to a solid start.  However, it still has a long way to go until it is complete.  As noted above, the “Data” section needs to be re-examined.  Project organizers are also adding more menus and descriptions of items.  They want to include more menus that actually describe what each dish includes and do not simply list what a restaurant offered.  These images will undoubtedly provide even greater details about what people ate and how their food reflected social and economic issues of their time.  As it progresses, I can see how the site can be an interesting and valuable tool for historians and anyone intrigued by the intersections of food and culture.

The one persistent thought that ran through my mind as I explored this site was that it raises the following question:  What exactly can (or should be) considered “historical evidence?”  Prior to seeing this site I had never really thought about how menus can serve as historical evidence that can teach us valuable lessons about an earlier time, but the site makes a convincing argument that menus can indeed do so.  When thinking about what kinds of primary sources to use in my research, I typically think about the traditional evidence that historians use:  letters, journals, speeches, music, etc.  What kinds of “different” sources have any of you used in your research?  For public history students, what does the study of public history tell us about what can be considered a legitimate primary source?


6 Replies to “What’s on the Menu? Database”

  1. When browsing this site for the first time, I was disappointed that I couldn’t find a description of “Key West Turtle Soup Flavored with Dry Sack Sherry” or “Espagnolettes with Sugar,” so it’s good to know that the library plans to include menus with descriptions. I think that’s something a lot of “foodie” historians would be interested in. Sure, you can Google it, but it’s a lot more convenient to have that information on the same page.

    I think it’s great that the NYPL is making these menus more accessible, because it is in these unconventional primary sources that you can find information that would be hard to come by in more traditional forms, like journals or newspapers. Another project that is digitizing unconventional primary sources is The Quilt Index (www.quiltindex.org). Much like finding the high and low prices for certain dishes over time in the What’s on the Menu project, here you can trace trends in quilt patterns, fabrics and colors, as well as learn about the quilt’s history and quilter. To me, information found in menus and quilts is just as legitimate as information in diaries and speeches-it just requires a little more analyzing to put the information into historical context to make it relevant.

    1. Angela,
      Your mention of The Quilt Index is very interesting. Do you know anything about how quilts are analyzed as historical evidence? Are they evaluated based on pictures or scenes that they depict, what kinds of fibers are in them, etc.? I’d like to talk about this idea in class tonight because I think it is something that might be interesting to a lot of people!

  2. Much like “Crowdsourcing the Civil War”, one of the nifty things about the “What’s on the Menu?” database is that it asks for volunteers to help transcribe the menu items. Using researchers or interested laypeople to create a searchable database is a really amazing idea. It surprises me that there are enough people out there willing to participate, but I’m glad there are.

    Something that I noticed when browsing through the transcribing instructions (http://menus.nypl.org/help) is that the New York Public Library doesn’t want people to transcribe the whole menu or even relevant section headers- just the dishes. This will change when their next transcribing tool comes down the pipes, but I wonder if it might not be a more useful/complete experience for the volunteer transcriber to be able to do an entire menu at once.

  3. “What’s on the Menu?” is an amazing example of the benefits of crowdsourcing. After exploring the site a little bit and getting the hang of how to transcribe, I had to participate. I jumped around from menu to menu adding to the work that other interested individuals had already contributed. I knew the concept behind crowdsourcing but it wasn’t until I took part that I understood the potential within it.

    The unusual sources being transcribed added to my fascination, as I am sure it does too many others; however, I was slightly disappointed by the narrowness of the source selection. Old menus are unique and interesting but they seem to mainly appeal to parties who have an interest in food and economic trends on a small scale. I think transcribing menus is a good starting point but I think crowdsourcing sites might be able to hold the attention of a transcriber longer, allowing for more productivity, if the topic is broader. For example, the crowdsourcing site created by the head of Digital Library Services for the University of Iowa Libraries, Nicole Saylor, seems to me as if it would be a more efficient site because it does not limit itself to one small subject but instead focuses on a large, highly influential war.

  4. Great discussion. Thrilled to see everyone bringing in comparisons across some of the different sites and readings. My only small contribution here is to mention that the difference between the structured data generated from NYPL’s project and the University of Iowa Libraries project is an important one.

    In NYPL’s case, they are actually developing a highly structured data set of information about individual menu items, in contrast, the Iowa project is much more free form transcriptions. Both work just fine for search, but the structured data is essential for being able to do more in-depth numeric analysis of trends and changes. This becomes an important consideration for some of the computational analysis we talked about last week.

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