October 20, 2007

Dining Out in the Electronic Neighborhood

It's amazing what you can find in your local public library. I shouldn't be surprised- my mom's a librarian and I practically grew up in libraries. But while searching for local historical resources at work the other day, I stumbled upon the Los Angeles Public Library's Electronic Neighborhood- a collection of electronic resources on the city's history which contains, among other thing, a collection of menus (mostly local) dating back to the 1860s that had been digitized and cataloged online, and made accessible to the public via an easy-to-use search engine.

This collection has led to a lot of slacking at work- I just can't stop browsing these menus. I find it endlessly fascinating to see what people ate in the past and how that changed over time.

There are a few restaurants that are still around, but most are long gone. Some have great names, like the "Bit of Sweden". Some have bizarre claims to fame, like Eaton's Chicken House ("glorifying the American chicken"), Marigold ("Best Ventilated Cafe in Los Angeles!"), and Trocadero ("The Only High-Class Restaurant in Hollywood").

Some menus are notable for their artwork, which ranges from charming to risque to featuring what is possibly the most terrifying chicken I've ever seen.

And all are signs of their times-- The World War II-era menu from Albert Sheetz Fine Foods features a stern-looking Uncle Sam eating dinner and declares, "For Health Defense! Properly Prepared to Retain All Vitamins."

Of course you have look at the menu options. What would a Los Angeles socialite eat at the Cafe Montmartre on Christmas Day in 1922? Why, "Cream of Lettuce Judith" and "Non-Fattening Parfait Amour", of course.

I'm really intrigued by the "Shish-ke-Dog" at Ken's Dog Kennel - it's so complicated that they had to diagram it on the menu. But the Temptation Sandwich at Buckhart's sounds positively revolting (buttered toast, fried ham, peanut butter, lettuce, pickles, and olives!).

And if you were craving something sweet in LA in the 1920s and 30s, you could swing by the soda fountain at the Pig n Whistle and indulge in a Creamed Buttermilk Phosphate or a Creme de Violet Sundae. (This restaurant, by the way, is still around today)

Even if you don't live in Los Angeles, I definitely recommend checking out this collection. It's kind of like rummaging through a virtual flea market- you never know what you're going to find.

For more library related food-blogging, check out Cooked Books. This blog (one of my favorites) is written by Rebecca Federman, the librarian in charge of the New York Public Library's culinary collection, and features recipes from both old and new cookbooks, historic cocktails, and general musings on the culinary past.

And, for more digitized menu collections see:
The Miss Frank E. Buttolph American Menu Collection at the New York Public Library
The Rare Menu Collection at the Cornell University Library


Marcia said...

What a fascinating collection. For all the problems that attend the virtual realm, the opening of library collections to the entire world is "priceless."

Marcia said...

What a fascinating collection. For all the problems that attend the virtual realm, the opening of library collections to the entire world is "priceless."

Rachael said...

I love this! Thank you!