Eating History

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TO READ THE MAY 13, 1900 dinnermenu at Rector’s, the midtown New York lobster house, is to engage in a little virtual hedonism: the fare includes 57 cuts of meat, 24 oyster dishes, 16 variations of lobster, and five kinds of duck. Some of the well-heeled diners on a weekend evening may have come from the Broadway Theatre’s hit production of Ben-Hur, which featured a live chariot race staged by actors driving eight galloping horses over two onstage treadmills. Rector’s patrons might have expected to encounter millionaire financer James Buchanan Brady (known as “Diamond Jim” after his habit of handing out diamonds to lady friends) at his usual table, gorging himself on a gallon of orange juice, multiple orders of Lynnhaven oysters, lobster, duck, steak, turtles, pies, and a two-pound box of candy. He reputedly would stop eating only after his massive belly had gained four inches and brushed the edge of the table.

The menu at Rector’s is only one of the delicious treats at the New York Public Library’s new digitized historic menu archive, “What’s on the Menu?” The library’s novel project invites the public to help transcribe more than 10,000 historic American menus, dating between 1860 and 1907. Menus showcase saloons such as Washington, D.C.’s Ebbitt House Hotel (now the Old Ebbitt Grill), long the favorite haunt of presidents, as well as the dinner fare onboard the opulent Hudson River steamship Mary Powell.

A powerful search engine enables users to research when a particular dish came on menus. (Tutti-frutti, for instance, a dessert consisting of ice cream with pieces of fruit, first appears in 1896 and last in 1907.) Another feature plots the relative position that a dish occupied on a menu, whether among the appetizers at the top or in the upper left or bottom with the entrees.

“Transcribing almost mimics the feeling of being at a restaurant and perusing the menu,” says the library’s electronic resources coordinator, Rebecca Federman. Unlike today, eating out was mostly the province of the wealthy, so most of the menus reveal the kinds of dishes demanded by the rich and famous, the prices they paid, and the wide variety of foods available in cities before the complete takeover of industrialized husbandry and agriculture. See menus.nypl.org.