Ox Tail with Barley, Burnham’s Boston Clam Chowder, Boiled Haddock with Lobster Sauce, Goose Stuffed with Apples, Leg of Mutton with Currant Jelly, Chicago Ice Cream. Interesting menu, isn’t it? It’s Chicago’s Union Hotel & Restaurant’s dinner menu from February 26, 1900. It’s also part of a project the New York Public Library has taken on with the help of the public.
The library’s restaurant menu collection, housed in the Rare Book Division, is one of the largest in the world with approximately 40,000 menus dating from the 1840s to the present. But unfortunately for historians, chefs, novelists and everyday food enthusiasts, those menus aren’t searchable. Their greatest treasure: information about dishes, prices, the organization of meals, and the history of food and culture is still hidden in the digital images of the menus.
So, the library has enlisted the public’s help in transcribing the menus dish by dish so that the collection can be researched and accessed.
The process is simple. Go to the project’s website, choose a menu that needs to be transcribed (as of Saturday October 22, 2011, there have been 595,137 dishes transcribed from 10,244 menus), choose a page of the menu, click on the menu, click on the dish you want to transcribe and enter the name of the dish and price. Once you’ve entered the dish, you’ll submit for review and move on the next dish. The library’s tool is easy to use, plus you can jump around from menu to menu. I tried it over the weekend, experimenting with different dates, restaurants, inns, ocean lines, even Pan Am’s transatlantic service on Flight 119 in 1973. You can transcribe menus in different languages if you possess those skills. I found it amazingly interesting and somewhat addicting.
Did you notice the prices on The Union’s menu? Those numbers are in cents, not dollars. The most expensive item on the menu is a Dry Picked, Milk Fattened Whole Spring Chicken for $1.25. But even back then, restaurants charged a split fee: “Single portions served for two or more charged accordingly.” Some things never change.
As of Saturday October 22, 2011, there have been 595,137 dishes transcribed from 10,244 menus.