Print Project Proposal: Food for Thought

            Food is often a very significant point of cultural transfer and exchange. The restaurant industry is constantly in shift and mirrors the supply and demand of different foods and cultural trends. I would like to use the digital project What’s on the Menu to study to what extent the New York Public Library’s collection of menus reflect immigration and what that says about the digital project itself. 

            What’s on the Menu is a digital project based off of the Buttolph Collection of Menus housed at the New York Public Library (NYPL) archives. What’s on the Menu, like the Library of Congress’s By the People initiative, relies on crowdsourcing to transcribe menus. The menus are then available in their entirety online. The dishes, drinks, and corresponding prices are easily found. The site also offers different ways of searching through the content. The menus are available chronologically, alphabetically, or by dish count. The individual dishes can be sifted through either chronologically, alphabetically, by popularity, or by obscurity. The project also offers the data through their API and are working on geotagging (although this does not currently work and it’s unclear how long this has been the case). They also offer up to date spreadsheet exports twice a month, with their most recent export uploaded on 02/01/2020. 

            In looking at these menus and dishes to study the extent to which they correspond to immigration trends, I’d also like to take a close look at the digital project. The actual collection of menus numbers around 45,000, but only 17,545 have been digitized and made public on What’s on the Menu. How was the selection made in choosing what to digitize and what to leave analogue for an indefinite amount of time? The project also lists its audience primarily as researchers, such as historians or those in the food industry, who want to study the availability of certain foods in various areas and the evolution in pricing throughout the years. There are, of course, other questions and fields of study that could be built off of such a project. What effect might their targeted audience have had on the selection of what kind of restaurant menus to digitize and transcribe?

            It would be ambitious and involve actually traveling to the New York Public Library collections, but it would also be interesting to compare the physical collection of menus to the digital project. However, the significant number of menus to sift through could pose a problem in pursuing this.

Another interesting comparison would be the overlap between collection’s finding aid to the site’s categorization and then seeing what points were born from the digitalization of the collection. Using all these threads, I want to use the database to look at how reflective the menus and dishes are of immigration and cultural exchange, and then how the digital project impacts the use of the data for such a question.

3 Replies to “Print Project Proposal: Food for Thought”

  1. The NYPL menu collection is amazing and the What’s on the Menu Project is really great. Looking at data about the dishes and kinds of restaurants and trends in immigration is a great concept for a paper.

    As far as scoping a project, I think it’s going to be a good idea to try and just focus on the data that they have made available and then to reach out to the group to get context on how the decisions were made about digitization. It’s worth underscoring that the whole collection itself is somewhat haphazard, so the issues you face in drawing inferences from the sample you have in which menus were transcribed and digitized is not really gone if you get at the whole set of menus either. In all these cases they are likely not particularly representative of food in the city at any given moment in time.

    So while it would be hard to make generalizations from this data, there are really interesting existence proof kinds of claims you could make. Like what’s the first time a burrito shows up on one of the menus? or when does Sushi first appear on them? etc. All that kind of data is very interesting as a way of identifying firsts or lasts in the corpus and the trends in the data are potentially interesting irrespective of their generalizability.

    If you do go further with this, I would suggest reading some of the work that Trevor Munoz has done relating to work on the NYPL menus. (Ex and and )

  2. Cameron, this project sounds really interesting! I took a Politics of Food course in undergrad and for the final project, we had to pick a corridor of Philadelphia and create a map of restaurants and food stores to see how different immigrant trends influenced the neighboorhood. SocialExplorer is a great database to track immigration and other demographics in specific corridors of New York City. If you find a set of menus that relate to one another it would be interesting to see if they were located in the same region. If you pursue this project, I am really excited to see your findings.

  3. This sounds like a delicious idea! I love the idea of looking at food as a lens to look at larger issues. Another interesting thing to look at is the types of people that would dine at these places.

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