Menus as History

I was not always a huge fan of menus. Mostly, because the menus I used were hung over the grill at whatever greasy spoon dive where I was ordering my repast. Even the nicer places I visited had their menus slipped into heavy plastic binders the waitress would snatch from my fingers the moment I finished my order.

However, when you visit a white tablecloth joint, they’ll give you the menu. When you visit a tuxedoed waiter and tableside sommelier team white tablecloth joint, the menu will have your name engraved in silver (I’m looking at you, Tru) and will be sent home with you in a gift box with a tin of signature cookies and an engraved wooden clothesline pin. Menus in the Treasury of Great Recipes are like lenses into another time. From the sheet from La Pyramide with Fernand Pointe’s lazy scrawl to the carefully illustrated menu of Sobrina de Botín with the tiny, ballpoint pen inclusion of gazpacho andaluz wedged in under the mains, menus are more than keepsakes. They’re archeological heirlooms. They’re tangible artifacts. They’re proof you were there.

Because you were there.

Restaurants are big entertainment. As much as they are about great food, they’re also about Instagram pictures and bragging rights. If you go to Alinea, you get to tell people you went to Alinea. If they haven’t been to Alinea, you win. From that point until the finally attend Chicago’s flagship constellation of Michelin stars you can always bring it up casually in conversation and they have to shut up and think about that one time they were in line behind Vice Vaughn at Pequod’s.
But if you can whip out a menu, you won’t have to say a single word.

A menu is a piece of the restaurant you can bring home

I can tell that [brag alert] standing in the kitchen at the French Laundry and being introduced to the crew is a peak goddam moment. My wife and I were there in November 2017 and I was so rigid with joy I could barely speak. I just grinned and nodded my head like a douche. We wanted to imprint every detail onto our minds and never forget it. I wanted to lick everything. I wanted to pick up the prep station and bring it home with me.

Which is stupid because overhead restrictions on most airlines are ridiculous and it would never slide under my seat. But, I took home a piece of that joint. A brought home a clothesline pin with The French Laundry engraved along the side; I brought home a adorable little tin of shortbread cookies which is currently on my mantle with the clothespin, and I brought home the menu.
In the realm of gloat worthy artifacts, that menu carries weight. In a way, it’s like visiting the Louvre and coming back with the little finger of a marble Narcissus. Your friends will say they want to read it but really, they want to touch it. They’ll want to run their hands over it and try and somehow evoke a vision of being there and eating the food written on the page.

Which is why reading old menus is a form of archeology

The menus in the Treasury of Great Recipes are historic artifacts. They offer a peek into the minds of the world’s great chefs working in 1963.

This was the Mad Men era. This was the time of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. People smoked at their desk. At their table in a café. Hell, people smoked at their stove at home. I suspect the food mindset was a little different then. The French were insane about freshness and therefore locally sourced ingredients. But I’m not so sure other chefs followed suit. Plating was not such an art form, though the presentation was often ostentatious.

Some chefs were reaching past the edges of their inherited menus and inventing dishes. Pointe invented La Pyramide’s signature Salmon and Sorrel dish (though there is a debate about this; some historians believe the Troisgros brothers invented this signature dish. They definitely served it at the Michelin spangled houses of their restaurant kingdom. But they also served as apprentices under Fernand Pointe, becoming lifelong friends with Paul Bucose and I’m positive I’ve read a story about sorrel and salmon being invented at La Pyramide so I’m sticking with it.

If you had a menu from La Pyramide from the time they were apprentices, you could look at it and see. I happen to have such a menu but it doesn’t say a word about this dish and who knows, maybe I’m wrong.

Menus chart dining trends

Look at the menu from The Pierre, a classic New York hotel restaurant. You’ve seen the Pierre in countless pictures of New York. It’s the image of old-world luxury. Elizabeth Taylor lived here. Yet, the menu is horrible. It reflects expectations of wealthy guests but not necessarily of people interested in gastronomè. The dishes are expensive, and certainly very, very well-prepared. But they’re like the food on a cruise: chateaubriand, various steaks, lobster, royal squab, York ham, assorted cold meats. The only saving grace is the curry cart, manned by two men in elaborate pantaloons, spooning out beef or chicken curry. 

The depth of these menus is insane. Look at the double truck example from Terrace Danieli Restaurant. There are 66 dishes–18 of them are meat, 14 re eggs. It’s nuts. But you see this on many of the menus of the time. Quantity mattered. Variety was about the number of plates, not the ingredients. 

What I’m not wrong about is the value of menus. Even if you’re not arguing about the birth of a signature dish, they’re cool. In the gallery below, I’m offering a couple of menus that were reprinted in the first edition of Treasury of Great Recipes. I hope you like them

Terrace Danieli

Picture 1 of 10

Overlooking the royal canal in Venice, Italy.

What menus have you kept? Please tell me in the comments section below.

is an award-winning author and columnist from Chicago. His newest book is The Full English, a humorous travel memoir. His previous book, Death By Children, was IndieFab’s 2013 Humor Book of the Year. Bull is the founder and senior writer for Creative Writer PRO, and the impresario, host, and owner with his wife, Colleen, of Chicago’s premier private supper club, Eating Vincent Price.

Bull Garlington

is an award-winning author and columnist from Chicago. His newest book is The Full English, a humorous travel memoir. His previous book, Death By Children, was IndieFab's 2013 Humor Book of the Year. Bull is the founder and senior writer for Creative Writer PRO, and the impresario, host, and owner with his wife, Colleen, of Chicago's premier private supper club, Eating Vincent Price.

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