I'd collected dozens and dozens of Seattle menus before I recently rang up Seattle Public Library's reference librarian Bo Kinney and learned the library's menu collection was woefully short on menus from the last decade or two. Whole swaths of local culinary history are missing from the library's file boxes, which are jammed with gorgeous menus from an era when dishes changed so infrequently that it made sense to invest in splashy, die-cut menus. Not surprisingly, diners seized on those menus as free souvenirs.
"Many of the menus in our collection, like most ephemera, were not historical documents when they were collected," Kinney says. "Many were simply picked up by staff members when they went out to eat somewhere."
The library has supplemented its staff finds with purchases and contributions from private collectors, but the contemporary archive remains spotty. That's why I've given the library all the menus I've acquired over a near-year spent reviewing Seattle restaurants, and plan to keep donating any menus I pick up while working. The arrangement's a win-win: I'll gain extra desk space, and future researchers just might gain more insight into what Seattle ate in the early 2010s.
"Restaurant menus provide a wealth of information about the social history of a city," Kinney says. "The type of food, the prices, even the graphic design can tell us something about our changing cultural identity."
My hunch is there are libraries across the country which could benefit from partnering with local restaurant critics, who are incidentally collecting menus more aggressively than library staffers' schedules and budgets would allow. But critics aren't the only diners swiping menus: Kinney encourages collectors with local menus they think could broaden the library's archive to contact the library to discuss donation.
"Since there's no official archive for menus like there are for certain government records or other historical documents, it's important for us to continue collecting and preserving today's menus," Kinney says. "Fifty years from now, the menus of Terra Plata or Ting Momo will be as interesting as those of Rosellini's 610 or the Dog House are today."
Menus from Rosellini's 610 and the Dog House, along with other impressive selections from the library's collection, will be featured in a MOHAI History Cafe program tomorrow night. I'll be joining bookseller Taylor Bowie and author Clark Humphrey at Roy Street Coffee and Tea for an hour-long discussion of what we can learn from menus. And, just like menus, the 7 p.m. event is free for the taking. Hope to see you there.