From beef tongue to beef on weck, menus tell culinary story

April 17, 2015 byCarolyn Thompson
From beef tongue to beef on weck, menus tell culinary story
A menu from the 1960s or 1970s from Ace's Steak Pit is shown at the Buffalo History Museum April 15, 2015 in Buffalo, N.Y. The menu is part of a collection of vintage and present-day menus being amassed by the museum as a way to trace the city's culinary and social history. (AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson)

Before beef on weck and chicken wings became staples of the city's restaurants, there was beef tongue and woodcock.

An array of amassed by the Buffalo History Museum offers a taste of the city's culinary story—from yesterday's mock turtle soup and creme de menthe cocktails to today's mesclun greens and fried calamari.

Menu collectors here and elsewhere say there's no more fascinating way to dish about the past.

"Tastes change all the time," said museum library director Cynthia Van Ness. "What you think is wonderful and exciting today is going to seem pedestrian and stodgy tomorrow."

Van Ness so far has assembled about 5,000 Buffalo menus, some dating to the , and has put out a call for more.

"A lot of institutions and libraries have collections," said Rebecca Federman, a librarian at the New York Public Library, which boasts a 45,000-menu collection, "and based on the number of emails I get from regular people who want to donate the menus, it seems like a lot of people collect them as well."

Auction site eBay is full of vintage bills of fare, with sellers asking anything from under a dollar to $30 or more.

The New York Public Library is digitizing the rest of its menu collection to appeal to the variety of people who browse through it: the foodies and chefs looking for historical inspiration, relatives of departed restaurateurs longing for a glimpse of family history.

From beef tongue to beef on weck, menus tell culinary story
This April 15, 2015 photo shows a collection of employee guides issued by the Deco restaurant in Buffalo, N.Y. in the 1930s. The brochures are part of a collection of vintage and present-day restaurant menus collected by the Buffalo History Museum as a way to help trace the city's culinary and social history. (AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson)

"We've had historians from Germany and from France who have been discovering the wine lists and traced the rise of German wines in the United States," Federman said. A marine biologist once used the menus to study how the fish being served at the time corresponded to the species' populations in neighboring waters.

The Buffalo collection marks the appearance of oysters after the 1825 opening of the Erie Canal, which shortened shipping time. Menus from the 1970s began highlighting vegetarian-friendly dishes like the "completely meatless" marinara sauce at one former restaurant.

The city's signature chicken wings didn't come along until 1964. The local favorite beef on weck—roast beef on a salty kummelweck roll—is believed to have appeared during the 1901 Pan-American Exposition.

While perusing a mid-19th century menu that featured mangoes as an ingredient, Van Ness was surprised the tropical fruit was available in 1848 Buffalo.

"Maybe our ancestors were more adventurous with food than we think they were," she said. "There are things we look at now and go, 'ew.' I don't think many people are interested in beef tongue these days."

The design of the menus followed typography and printing trends of the times, like lithography. A late 19th century menu from department store J.N. Adam & Co. has a colorful lithograph of a woman winding up to throw a ball, while a 1960s-era steakhouse menu (when a steak was $2.75) was cut in the shape of a cow. Harvest gold and orange of the 1970s adorn some menus from that period.

A 1940s menu from former nightclub Little Harlem features a selection of Chinese food for 65 cents, Welsh rarebit and golden buck for 75 cents and a 40-cent creme de menthe drink. It also informs of a dancing tax of $2.50 per person that the club was required to collect under a 1924 law.

"Part of why I love them so much is because of how transportive they are," said food blogger Adam Roberts, who decorated his kitchen walls with vintage menus from flea markets and garage sales.

"One look," he said, "and you're whisked back to a very specific moment in time, revealing everything from the tastes of the era—aspic anyone?—to how much people paid to eat well."

Explore further: Low-calorie restaurant menus: Are they making us fat?

Related Stories

Low-calorie restaurant menus: Are they making us fat?

April 15, 2014
Depending on our food cravings, the number of items served, and even the time of day, ordering a meal at a restaurant often requires a "narrowing down" decision making process. According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer ...

Healthy and less healthy 'Kid's menu' meals similar in price

June 14, 2013
(HealthDay)—Healthy and less healthy meals on children's menus in full-service restaurants are similarly priced, in contrast to the higher price of healthy food at the grocery store, according to a study published online ...

FDA head says menu labeling 'thorny' issue

March 12, 2013
(AP)—Diners will have to wait a little longer to find calorie counts on most restaurant chain menus, in supermarkets and on vending machines.

Menu secrets that can make you slim by design (w/ Video)

July 29, 2014
If you've ever ordered the wrong food at a restaurant, don't blame yourself; blame the menu. What you order may have less to do with what you want and more to do with a menu's layout and descriptions.

Five things to know: Alcohol calorie labels on menus

December 17, 2014
Want to know how many calories are in that alcoholic drink you're about to order? You might be able to find out just by reading the menu.

Recommended for you

Consuming protein supplements with meals may work better for weight control

April 25, 2018
A new systematic review of available evidence appearing in Nutrition Reviews indicates that consuming protein supplements with meals may be more effective at promoting weight control than consuming supplements between meals ...

Potential for sun damage should be carefully balanced with need for vitamin D in children, say scientists

April 24, 2018
Scientists at King's College London are encouraging parents and carers to ensure even more rigorous protection of children against the harmful effects of the sun. The comments follow a study which has suggested that children ...

Millennials aren't getting the message about sun safety and the dangers of tanning

April 24, 2018
Many millennials lack knowledge about the importance of sunscreen and continue to tan outdoors in part because of low self-esteem and high rates of narcissism that fuel addictive tanning behavior, a new study from Oregon ...

People expect their memory to fade as early as their 50s

April 24, 2018
People across the UK expect their memory to worsen in their 50s, according to new research from Heriot-Watt University.

Aging: The natural stress reliever for many women

April 24, 2018
While some research suggests that midlife is a dissatisfying time for women, other studies show that women report feeling less stressed and enjoy a higher quality of life during this period.

Napping and teenage learning

April 24, 2018
Teenagers and sleep. It's certainly a passionate subject for many American parents, and those in China. University of Delaware's Xiaopeng Ji is investigating the relationship between midday-napping behaviors and neurocognitive ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.