Since its founding in 2004, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum has been collecting menus. Ranging from historic to current, high-end to fast-food, SoFAB is cultivating a unique collection that already consists of over 5,000 items. Through the collection of Southern and Southern-inspired menus, the Museum is attempting to preserve the South’s culinary identity, as well as create a valuable research tool for future historians.
Menu collections provide a detailed look into historical movements, values, and culture of a given society. Like cookbooks, menus can illustrate important aspects of a society, such as food trends and their correlation to the health, economic, and technological realities of the time. The Menu, however, can offer a different historical analysis than the Cookbook. While cookbooks depict the types of fare produced by home cooks and the possibilities of meals during a time period, a menu—whether for a restaurant or a special event—documents meals that were actually eaten. Able to bridge classes, menus have the ability to portray examples of extravagance and luxury, as well as of frugality and everydayness. Particularly with restaurants, a menu can illustrate popular culinary trends, technological advances, and delicacies of a certain period. Further examination of menu pricing and dish popularity may reference the financial and environmental concerns of a time.
Though many menu collections exist throughout the world—the New York Public Library has a particularly successful historical menu collection—the growing collection at SoFAB has a unique focus. While menus of historical significance are always an exciting addition to the collection, SoFAB is attempting to amass a collection that will include menus from every restaurant in the southern United States as well as southern-inspired menus throughout the world, with an emphasis placed on current menus. In archiving this regional cuisine and Southern identity, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum is preserving history.
The current collection includes examples of menus that are very representative of important aspects of the region and its recent history. There are an abundance of menus concerned with local, organic, and sustainable cuisines, mirroring a collective regional consideration of environmental crisis. Future historians will be able to attribute the sudden increase in the price of Gulf-caught seafood during 2010 to the BP Oil Spill. The effects of Hurricane Katrina are present in many of the menus as well, whether in comparing restaurants that closed due to the storm or in the menu options of those that were able to reopen. Even the numerous menus that offer discounts and deals reflect America’s financial concerns. In many ways, this collection can help define our region and our time.
The Menu Project is constantly collecting menus and hopefully, SoFAB will soon be able to digitize the collection. If you would like to help, the Menu Project would greatly appreciate menu donations. The next time you go out to eat, ask to keep a menu and send it to:
Southern Food and Beverage Museum
500 Port of Orleans Place, Suite 169,
New Orleans, LA 70130.
For further information about the Menu Project, please see the website: http://southernfood.org/sofab/explore/collections/the-menu-project/