Photos courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
On June 13th, the Los Angeles Public Library will begin a multi-platform exhibition of their massive collection of vintage restaurant menus as part of a project called To Live and Dine in L.A. The exhibition at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles (which will be presented along with a series of celebrity-chef panels) consists of more than 9,000 vintage menus collected from the L.A. area and archived at the library. The event is being held as a prelude to the June 15th release of a book by Angel City Press documenting the entire project called To Live and Dine in L.A.: Menus and the Making of the Modern City by author, curator, and USC professor, Josh Kun (in collaboration with, and a forward written by, chef Roy Choi).
Josh Kun was the mastermind behind a similar project, Songs in the Key of Los Angeles, back in 2013, that incorporated pieces of sheet music culled from the archives of the L.A. Public Library—spanning the years from 1859 to 1959—to illustrate the history of Los Angeles through song.
As for the historical importance of studying old restaurant menus in helping to understand the evolution of society in general, Kun told the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books:
Menus are social text. They’re urban text. They’re pieces of fiction. And they are written. How can we look at our city and its history through the window of menus? Through the menus, how can we see what was missing? We’ve got about 25,000 places to eat in L.A., but we are the ‘epicenter of hunger,’ according to the USDA. We live in both a foodie society and a food bank society. How do you reconcile those two things? How can restaurants and food be used to restore ideas around justice, around community and equality?
In other words, with many of them dating back as far as the 1800s, these vintage menus aren’t just beautiful to look at, they also serve as tiny time capsules, little printed microcosms that can be used to chart the progress of Los Angeles in regards to societal issues that have occurred over the past century. For example, studying these menus can illuminate the ongoing class struggle against social and economic inequality, the rise of car culture, improvements (or not) in race relations, or even how different types of foods have fallen in and out of favor throughout L. A.’s various historical eras due to immigration, drastic economic changes, or the fact that wartime rationing was in effect.
According to Kun:
Menus are urban texts which give us a glimpse into a specific time and place by revealing cultural identity, class conflict, race, and gender disparities. Some of the menus we came across are food documents of privilege and speak to issues of food awareness and inequality. It is those kinds of histories that are buried within the menu.
Browsing through these menus may make you hungry, but if you delve in deep enough, you’ll come to the realization that there was a time when ordering from the “dollar menu” was something that only rich people could do. So, if your stomach starts growling as you study these works of delicious art, remember that it’s always best to take time capsules with food.
The menu collection at the L.A. Public Library’s website is searchable. We recommend searching by decade—you can get lost in that collection for hours.
Much more after the jump…