Some of us are still mourning the passing of the album cover.
First shrunk to CD jewel box size, it’s all but disappeared into the straight-to-iPod download. A once vital contribution to the culture of music, album art and liner notes are increasingly the preserve of gray-bearded collectors.
Could the same thing happen to restaurant menus?
Many of the quick-serve and national chains now use electronic menu boards, self-serve ordering kiosks, and digital table projections. iPad menus and wine lists are popping up at even high-end restaurants, and a restaurant’s website has become the ultimate ambassador for an establishment’s brand identity.
The menu used to be the heart of any restaurant.
Like album covers, menus reflect social, cultural, and artistic values. They are big canvases where restaurateurs can create a visual and tactile experience that invites us in and tells us a story about the meal to come.
Thankfully, there are some who will carry the torch into the digital age.
The fine art publisher Taschen has just released Menu Design in America, a yummy, coffee table-sized book that provides an epicurean tour of dining in America over the past 100 years.
The Italian gastronomic society Academia Barilla has a rich collection of menus dating back to the early 1800’s, giving us a rare view of regional Italian cooking that predates the unification of the individual Italian states.
The Harley Spiller Menu Collection documents one man’s love affair with Chinese takeout. 6,000 of the 10,000 menus in his private collection are of the tri-fold variety that urban dwellers find stuffed in their mailboxes.
The New York Public Library has one of the world’s largest historical menu collections, with more than 40,000 menus that are regularly perused by historians, chefs, novelists, and everyday food enthusiasts.
You can help carry that torch.
For years, the librarians at the New York Public Library have been slogging their way through the process of digitizing their massive menu collection. The progress has been slowed by the idiosyncratic nature of menus. The Optical Character Recognition technology is stymied by handwritten menus, unorthodox layouts, and fanciful typography, and the digital scanners aren’t able to read the menus in a way that creates indexable, searchable data.
The library has created the What’s on the Menu? project to enlist the public’s help in transcribing the menus, dish by dish. Eventually they plan to formalize the process a bit, but for now there are no user accounts or tracking systems. You just click on a menu and type what you see. It’s easy and it literally takes just a few seconds of your time for you to contribute to this important preservation of our culinary past.
Give it a try—you can start transcribing right now, right here!