A Menu of American Eating

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“I started collecting menus as a kind of research tool for my earlier book California Crazy, about vernacular roadside architecture,” Heimann explains, “but because so many of them had incredible graphics, it became obsessive—especially [those from] the drive-ins. And then I wanted to know what Americans ate when they ate out. And did Americans eat out very often prior to the car and the 20th century? And the answer is that before then, most Americans didn’t go out at all. Most of the menus from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are from big banquets and formal occasions. Only people who had the means availed themselves of ‘dining out,’ and there was a social structure imposed on dining. Many early restaurants were strictly all-male establishments.”

Naturally, the menus record changes in culinary tastes and fashions, the rise of fast food, infatuations with tiki and the smorgasbord, and famous and infamous names such as the Cotton Club, Delmonico’s, DiMaggio’s, and Trader Vic’s. Some things remain remarkably stable: Meat and potatoes, it seems, have always been with us. Some things change constantly; there is probably a Ph.D. thesis to be written about the rise and fall of America’s relationship with the frog’s leg. But the menus also record and reflect key chapters in American society: wars, Prohibition, notions of “healthy” eating, the space age, and especially patterns of immigration.

The book is full of surprises as well. Who knew that KFC once provided rather elegant printed menus? Who would have thought that in 1902 there was a Los Angeles restaurant named the Vegetarian that served gluten gruel, eggplant on toast, and “protose steak with jelly”?

“If there was a golden age of menu design,” Heimann ventures, “I’d say it was the 1930s. There were wonderful things going on in the big cities, even though it’s the middle of the Depression. L.A. had all the Hollywood nightclubs, New York and Chicago had great restaurants, and most of the menus used fine illustration. And they had some wonderful regional ingredients available: L.A. menus featured bison and rattlesnake. When you get into the ’70s and ’80s, everything drops off. Illustration is replaced by photography; nobody wanted to spend so much money.”

One restaurant in the book makes me wish I had a time machine to take me back there: the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, located in New York City’s Rockefeller Center in the late 1950s and early ’60s. (It made a brief appearance on Mad Men, which got the menu design dead right.) According to Heimann, it was “a very distant predecessor of the ‘theme restaurant,’ but it wasn’t intended to be campy. They were really trying to re-create a sumptuous classical Roman banquet.” There you might have had Lucanian lamb sausage, sylvan venison, alpine snow hare, and “crepes of the mad Nero.” OK, maybe not all of that is strictly authentic, but it still sounds pretty good to me.

Heimann reckons he’s been a collector since the age of 2—he started with rocks—and he’s not about to stop now. His treasure trove grows daily, and he’s much less finicky about the menus he acquires than many of his counterparts. “There’s a collecting mentality that everything has to be mint,” Heimann observes, “but personally, I don’t really care, because it comes with the territory—you find menus with wine or marinara sauce on them. A lot of them were taken as souvenirs, so they have fold marks, because people stuffed them in their coats. That’s how I get all my contemporary menus. If I’m going with a female companion, I ask her to bring a big purse.”

Geoff Nicholson is a writer in Los Angeles. His books include the novel The Food Chain and the nonfiction Lost Art of Walking. Nicholson’s previous articles for Gourmet Live include “Drinking In Shirley Temple and Charlie Sheen” and “Funny Food.”

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