Had I supped at Cooley's Hotel in Springfield, Mass., in 1901, I probably would have ordered the fried cod with stewed potatoes. Or perhaps I would have had boiled ham with cream toast.
I mused over Cooley's menu while participating in the New York Public Library's thrilling new crowd-sourced project. "What's on the Menu" aims to produce a searchable database of the library's 10,000 restaurant menus, so future historians can instantly discern whether New Yorkers took cocoa with their meals in the 1920s, and determine just when the nightclub sandwich shed its ritzy modifier.
The library last week put out the call through Facebook and Twitter for volunteers willing to transcribe dishes online. Since then, thousands of volunteers have recorded more than 75,000 dishes. Indeed, the hunger to help is so intense that it's a bit tricky to find a menu that hasn't already been attacked by an eager volunteer. But there are 9,000 menus awaiting transcription, and the library plans to soon scan another 30,000 menus in its collection.
"For obvious logistical reasons, it's never been possible to explore that huge trove of information in the depth it deserves," culinary historian Laura Shapiro writes in an explanatory blurb on the project's home page. "This project will open up the menus and all they can tell us about ingredients, dishes, and meal structure, about the economics and sociology of eating out, about the very language of food."
According to a feed highlighting recently entered dishes, volunteers have come across canned lima beans; macaroni a la Milanese; game soup; punch a la Santa Claus; and larded Long Island quail.
Such dishes have inspired volunteers' imaginations.
According to The New York Times, Ben Vershbow, the library's digital labs manager, received an e-mail from an enthusiast in Portland one day after the project's launch.
"He wanted to host a transcription party where guests would bring laptops, do their transcription, and eat dishes from the menus," Vershbow told the Times.