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?