A delectable slice of the internet that serves up tasty morsels of the culinary history of New York, What’s on the Menu? is a fusion of digital archive and collaborative transcription project that is equal parts brilliant, mouth-watering, and historically significant. It attempts to bring together the approximately 45,000 physical menus from the 1840s to today that is held at the New York Public Library—which are still in the process of being completely digitised—with hungry crowds on the internet able and willing to transcribe, review, and geotag menus from New York’s legendary restaurant scene.
The website itself is beautifully designed and easy to navigate—providing tasteful puns (unlike this review)—with only six sections on the navigation menu as well as a search bar at the top right corner. Although the front page provides a warning that the search function is not working properly, a cursory search suggests that it functions well enough and returns substantial results when used. The ‘Menus’ section is the bread and butter of the site, featuring all 17,547 menus that have been digitised with visitors able to view all the menus, new ones, those still under review, and menus that have been completely transcribed and which are also broken down by decade. Visitors can also sort the menus by date, name, and dish count. ‘Dishes’ represents a virtual smorgasbord of the 427,804 unique meals listed on the menus and is similarly broken down by decade but can be sorted by date, name, popularity, and obscurity. Focussing on a particular dish throws up a lot of interesting data, including price range, when it appears, frequency of appearance by year, and related dishes. The project team is also kind enough to include additional information, which features links to images, recipes, books, restaurants, and general information. The ‘Data’ section is for researchers, scholars, students, and members of the public with more advanced tastes, providing access to the underlying data behind What’s on the Menu either through .CSV format or through New York Public Library Lab’s API. While providing valuable and interesting deep dives into the available menus, the ‘Blog’ section—which links to the New York Public Library’s main website—is inactive, last being updated in 2013. ‘About’ provides an overview of the project and the historical context of the library’s menu collection as well as answering a number of frequently asked questions and crediting the project’s staff. Finally, the ‘Help’ section is a handy guide for those looking to assist the project by taking part in the transcription of the menus.
Food history is an engaging means of exploring society and culture, and What’s on the Menu presents ample opportunity to develop innovative new understandings of economics, consumption, diet, migration patterns and demographic change, and urban morphology. By piecing together the historical breadcrumbs of the food and beverages on sale and how much they cost, anyone interested in the history of the culinary arts have the ability to trace how patterns of cooking and eating changed over time. As an example, it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that coffee is the most popular item on menus and has been since the 1840s while German dishes feature rather heavily on the obscurity counter. Scrolling through the years, it is also perhaps a foregone conclusion that each subsequent decade features a process of globalisation in available cuisines as a wider, more diverse, and more authentic range of restaurants emerged on the scene.
For educators and students, there are a great variety of options on how to use the menus. In one formulation, educators could perhaps task students to trace the popularity of a particular dish over time and do additional research off-site to try and ascertain the broader processes behind why said dish became more or less popular. Another exercise might involve analysing menus from particular decades as a means of reconstructing culinary developments in terms of the entrée of new cuisines or economic developments such as inflation or deflation (as reflected in dramatic changes in price) or economic recession or downturns (as reflected in a reduction in the number of restaurants and changes in the types of food on offer). One final—and likely tasty—suggestion would be to challenge students to replicate dishes from a single menu or a selection of menus which could then be enjoyed in class.
What’s on the Menu is an ingenious venture that mixes together the important trends of digitisation, open access, and crowdsourcing that brings an important element of the United States’ sociocultural history to the fore. Fun and engaging, it is a feast for the eyes that at the same time offers a lot of food for thought.