I’ve always liked looking at menus, but it had never occurred to me that there might be collections online. Then I heard about the New York Public Library menu archives on KCRW’s Good Food last week.
The menu collection originated through the energetic efforts of Miss Frank E. Buttolph (1850-1924), a somewhat mysterious and passionate figure, whose mission in life was to collect menus. In 1899, she offered to donate her existing collection to the Library — and to keep collecting on the Library’s behalf. Presciently, director Dr. John Shaw Billings accepted her offer and for the next quarter century Miss Buttolph continued to add to the collection. Her principal method of acquisition was to write to every restaurant she could think of, soliciting menus. When letters failed, she often marched into a restaurant and pleaded her case in person. She also placed advertisements in trade publications like The Caterer and The Hotel Gazette, but just as often, published news of her collection prompted outright contributions of specimens from around the world. Three times between 1904 and 1909, The New York Times wrote about her and the collection, noting once that “she frankly avers that she does not care two pins for the food lists on her menus, but their historic interest means everything.” Miss Buttolph added to the collection of more than 25,000 menus until her death in 1924. The collection has continued to grow through additional gifts of graphic, gastronomic, topical or sociological interest, especially but not exclusively New York-related.
This, of course, sent me on a day long expedition, digging through the NYPL collection, and then on to the LA Public Library, Alice Statler Library, and the Cornell School of Hotel Administration Library collections.
I think menu history is important, if only to show and learn from time past. So many dishes have come and gone, many just because they have gone out of style. If I was a chef, I’d be browsing them from time to time looking for ideas. In the meantime, for those who always wondered what it is, here’s a recipe for Mock Turtle Soup, courtesy Wikipedia.
Mock turtle soup is an English soup that was created in the mid-18th century as a cheaper imitation of green turtle soup. It often uses brains and organ meatssuch as calf’s head or a calf’s foot to duplicate the texture and flavour of the original’s turtle meat.
Mrs. Fowle’s Mock Turtle Soup,: “Take a large calf’s head. Scald off the hair. Boil it until the horn is tender, then cut it into slices about the size of your finger, with as little lean as possible. Have ready three pints of good mutton or veal broth, put in it half a pint of Madeira wine, half a teaspoonful of thyme, pepper, a large onion, and the peel of a lemon chop’t very small. A ¼ of a pint of oysters chop’t very small, and their liquor; a little salt, the juice of two large onions, some sweet herbs, and the brains chop’t. Stand all these together for about an hour, and send it up to the table with the forcemeat balls made small and the yolks of hard eggs.”
Mock turtle soup is the basis for the character of the Mock Turtle in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the joke being that Mock Turtle Soup is supposedly made from Mock Turtles.
You’ll thank me for the above when you see it on local menus.
You can also help the library by transcribing them to the library database. It’s easy, fun, and helping to make the menus available to researchers. Go to menus.nypl.org and start tapping!
Richard H. Engeman says
Regional historical menus can also be found on the web. I’ve written about, and illustrated, some of these on my blog, http://oregonrediviva.blogspot.com/, and would like to know of others who have collections of historical Pacific Northwest menus. The Oregon Historical Society research library has a fine collection.
You can find other regional historical menus at http://content.lib.washington.edu/menusweb/index.html. Also see
Miss BUttolph’s collection at NYPL doesn’t have much from Out West, but there are a number of menus from the dining cars of western railroads, such as the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company.