We’ve always been big fans of the food-centric collections at the New York Public Library, both those at our neighborhood branches — did you know each one has its own custom cookbook selections, based on the community it serves? — and the historical documents at the main branch on 42nd Street.
In addition to countless antique cookbooks of serious historical value, there are 40,000 menus gathered from New York City restaurants going back to 1842. Things like 1900 “The Bill of Fare” from Chas. Bradley’s Oyster and Dining Room (raw oysters 20 cents; bluepoint fry 25) or the breakfast menu from the Red Star Line cruise ship (calf’s liver Bordelaise and buckwheat cakes).
They’re magical little documents, a glimpse back into dining trends of the past (many, like foraged foods or the Beefsteak, back again) and into how this city used to eat on a day to day basis, often rich but sometimes poor. Some recent good news is that our favorite libraran, Rebecca Federman, is spearheading a new project called “What’s on the Menu?” to have the names of all the dishes on them transcribed. (Be sure to check out her blog, too; it’s called Cooked Books.)
If you offer to help, you’re sent a menu and then the results of your handiwork are posted and cataloged to make it easier for all to use these menus as research tools. What, you don’t want to know every place serving oyster fritters or pints of Beadleston & Woerz Pale Ale in 1902?