Book Preview: Highlights From 'Menu Design in America'

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A look inside a design book devoted to more than a century of the exquisite everyday artifacts that have told us what's for dinner

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I'm not a menu collector, though I've got a very small suitcase of old ones, scribbled-on, crumpled, out of order—I love them. Menu Design in America, 1850-1985 zooms in on "the golden age of American menus" and looks delightful. (It is, coincidentally, due out just days before my birthday next month.)

Steven Heller, who writes the Visuals column for the Times and the wonderful Daily Heller column for Imprint (and is an online columnist here at The Atlantic), has written a history of the bill of fare, exploring the menu as exquisite design artifact, scrapbook souvenir and cultural anachronism, among other things. Along with John Mariani of Esquire and graphic design historian Jim Heimann, Heller has put together a collection of almost 700 menus.

When Heimann says, in his intro, that "the printed American menu holds a particular place in the realm of international collecting," I think of Miss Frank E. Buttolph, a serious collector who was featured in the Times back in 1906 for her 14,500 menus. Way ahead of her time, this lady.

Though the Times didn't quite approve of menu-collecting:

It cannot make an impression as a part of literature, nor can it be described as an appendix to history, not has it any place amid "old manuscripts." It must forever stand for what it is "The Buttolph Collection," or, to describe it more elaborately, in the manner of old-time sub-titles, it is "the feminine instinct for accumulation verified by a lady, with neatness, elegance, and artistic verisimilitude."

It did, on the other hand, concede that valuable information could be gleaned from menu-reading:

French seems to be the international menu language, excepting where we find ourselves lunching with the Maharajah of Baroda, mightily puzzled by the Sanskrit. Confining ourselves to the rulers of the world—big and little, revolutionary and by Divine right—we find a somewhat interesting survey of the literal power behind the throne.

Rebecca Federman has a great blog documenting her work on the New York Public Library's collection, which was started by Miss Buttolph but has since grown larger (and to include more recent menus). If you'd like to look at the collection, which is awesome, just make a note of their rules.

Top image: Courtesy of the New York Public Library

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Tejal Rao

Tejal Rao is a writer and translator from Northwest London, living in
Brooklyn. She is a restaurant critic for the Village Voice. Follow her on Twitter or learn more at www.tejalrao.com.

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