The Menu Project
by Ellen J. Wallach
You’ve probably never thought about what happens to old menus. They are made to be disposable. Used, abused, and soiled by unwashed hands and random food splatters, they are unceremoniously thrown out or, more recently, recycled. I’d never thought about them either until two months ago.
In an effort to purge our possessions for an anticipated move, my husband arrived in the kitchen with a pock-marked 1950s white suitcase, the kind that weighs 40 lbs. empty. I had seen it in the basement over the years, but never knew where it came from or what was in it. He inherited it twenty years ago when his neighbor was moving. It contained almost 100 menus from the 1940s through the 1970s. The neighbor “liberated” menus from restaurants mostly in the Northwest where he lived. This was his collection.
Some are plain. Some are beautiful. Some are works of art. All are interesting. They are in all sizes and some are shapes- a clown head for a children’s menu, a slab of steak for the Old Country Kitchen, and an arrowhead for the Indian Village Restaurant. Each menu is a peek at a culture that existed 40 or more years ago. What did we eat? What did we drink? How much did it cost? This is anthropological research I couldn’t recycle. Now what?
Thus, began the menu project- finding homes for over-the-hill cartes. These were not pristine beauties. Where to begin? Google. Most of the restaurants no longer exist. Even extensive restaurant chains have disappeared and so have the prices!
The Camlin Hotel in Seattle (described in their 1947 menu as “Smartness in Hotel Accommodation,” had a restaurant with great views, The Cloud Room. It is no longer a hotel but part of the Wyndham Vacation Ownership group. The Cloud Room is now a number of upscale penthouses. The most expensive menu item was Filet Mignon for $3.25. Coffee was $.10.
Inn at the Quay in Spokane, Washington specialized in flaming desserts- Cherries Jubilee and Peach Flambe for $1.75. The house specialty was Tips & Tails- tenderloin beef tri-tips and imported lobster tails. The price included soup or salad, baked potato, and individual loaf of bread and coffee. Price? $5.50.
As you might guess, restaurants in the mid 20th century were featuring a lot of meat, all inclusive meals (salads, potato, rolls and coffee,) and coffee meant caffeinated. Sanka was decaf. There are menu items rarely seen anymore: Pineapple Welsh Rarebit, Flaked Chicken a la King, Finnan Haddie, and Hot Mince with Rum Sauce.
The menus are finding their ways to new homes- the amateur historian for the city of Palo Alto took three of them; Ivar’s, an institution in Seattle, is now home to a large menu cutout of The Captain; and the Heathman and Benson Hotels in Portland have repatriated their menus.
The next time you are out, think about what people in 2070 might say about us. Look at the prices we consider high. I bet you’d rather be ordering from my menus.
Ellen J. Wallach is an organizational development consultant in Seattle, Washington. She is fascinated by how people in other cultures and times live.