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Menu Testimonials

by Harley Spiller

Personal Perspectives

Spring Volume: 2005 Issue: 12(1) page(s): 24 and 35


On July 1st, 2004, I shared a batch of Chinese menus with waiters and maitre d's who work at Manhattan's Oriental Palace Restaurant. They chose not to provide names, but their candid remarks are recorded below, after a description of the menu in question. Five men checked out the menus and commented on them as they played cards in the down time between lunch and dinner. Their individual remarks are grouped by subject, and edited for grammar only. I then asked six other restaurant, culture, and/or education professionals who are familiar with this collection to comment, and their statements also follow, alphabetically, below. I am very grateful to all eleven respondents for their careful, thoughtful and kind words.

Reaction to a bilingual Chinese/English menu from a 1898 menu with illustrations of a kow-towing pony-tailed waiter: This is a Ching Dynasty stereotype. People will resent this. Doing this kind of stuff these days, people don’t like it. It’s not authentic. You could get killed. Dragon and Phoenix designs are OK. In a big city, personally, this stuff is resented. In a small city where Chinese are a minority, whatever they do they don’t care. Propaganda and stereotypes are OK in small towns. It does not offend anyone else.

On menus with English words written in faux-Chinese brush strokes: You walk in a Chinese restaurant and they write English in Chinese style – it’s resented. For foreigners it is a gimmick but it is not authentic. Send ‘em to Jay Leno.

On an Italian Chinese takeout menu: This menu is classy--fancy and authentic atmosphere, regardless what the food is, look at the photos--the printing is not corny. It is decent.

About an Australian Chinese takeout menu: Any place specializing in Cantonese, Szechuan, and Pekingese food, no one should specialize in three cuisines. How many chefs can they have? No chef can make three cuisines. Respect one specialty. A restaurant with three hundred dishes--not really good. A really good restaurant has a small menu.

Overall, their comments on menu collecting: The older menus you collect are very important. Oh my god Chinese food is very old, really amazing. You collect all these menus, incredible. Yes, it is important, it’s your hobby. Nice job, some obsolete. Can not find anymore. Lots of luck whatever you do.

• • •

Chinese restaurants and take-out menus go hand-in-hand; they were part of the ubiquitous ephemera of my childhood. Depending on where one lives, this might be equally true even today. As the child of a restaurateur, I had the experience of stuffing the mailboxes in the neighbourhood with menus. Even today, take-out menus announce local dining establishments—either a brand new enterprise or a change in ownership. For the collector and researcher, they also tell to a degree a story about location and the dining clientele at a particular time. How is the food categorised, or what are the various dishes presented? Are 'congee' and 'hot pot' listed, or are 'fried rice, egg foo yung,' and 'chow mein' the primary dish categories? Even the restaurant name can be representative. For example, a restaurant name that uses icons typically associated with Chinese culture (such as 'pagoda' or 'dragon') often dates to the 1950's and 1960's. The use of 'chop suey' or 'chow mein' in combination is another time marker. As consumers develop more sophisticated palates through travel and experience, the dishes presented evolve in order for the restaurant to survive. For these reasons, an extensive menu collection, systematically amassed and dated, provides a snapshot glimpse of food culture—Chinese cuisine adapted and recreated within a cultural context outside of China. The result is sometimes a unique food identified as Chinese, but perhaps a stranger in China. (Imogene L. Lim, Ph.D., Professor, Anthropology Malaspina University-College, Canada)

• • •

In New York’s Chinatown, the restaurant industry has no parallel when it comes to its importance and value to a wide spectrum of folks including an increasingly diverse Chinese community itself, as well as visitors from around the globe who experience our culture through dining out. The menus collected from restaurants all over the world are a visual reminder that Chinese have traveled to all continents, bringing with them a bit of home, while establishing new outposts. Comparing historic menus helps us understand how Chinese food as served in restaurants has changed over the decades. It enables us to discern the notable differences in restaurant cuisine from north to south, east to west, and island fare. (Fay Chew Matsuda, President, Museum of Chinese in the Americas)

• • •

I first met Inspector Collector when I was starting my own collection. When I went to see his menus, he gave me all his extras, which he had collected by walking all over Manhattan, grabbing menus from the stacks that restaurants leave outside. He has a pile of menus by his bed and sometimes they fall on him when he is sleeping at night. He tells great stories about all his Chinese restaurant escapades, and even his description of the worst Chinese food ever eaten is full of enthusiasm. Inspector Collector is a true believer! (Indigo Som, Artist, the Chinese Restaurant Project, http://www.indigosom.com)

• • •

I think it’s cool, y’know cause you got, how can I say, you handle the menu, you got Chinese culture. From your collection of lots of menus from different countries we see the progress of different Chinese foods, different styles of cuisine. Some, from a very long time ago, have history inside them. Some of the menus cannot be bought for money, but they’re like jewelry. (Michael Song, Owner, J-Boat Yaki restaurant, 40-09B Prince St. Flushing, NY)

• • •

El archivo de menus Chinos Spiller rescata del torbellino urbano un elemento marginal: los panfletos gastronomicos. Estos son recuperados a la memoria y reintegrados a la historia en la labor pionera de Harley Spiller. Una historia no homogenea alimentada permanentemente por el presente. Mas que una coleccionista Harley Spiller es un Historiador del gusto y sus formas. Translation: The Spiller archive of Chinese menus rescues a marginal element from urban turbulence: the gastronomic pamphlets are reintegrated into history because of the original work of Harley Spiller. A non-homogenized history permanently fed by the present. More than a collector, Harley Spiller is a Historian of taste and its manifestations. (Javier Tellez, Artist)

• • •

The art world cannot be called 'the art world' if it lacks the function of collection. The human world is not 'the human world' without the phenomenon of cultural diversity. Harley Spiller, a.k.a. Inspector Collector, has uniquely used his collection of Chinese take-out menus to forge a connection between the art world and the diverse cultures in today's society in America. Chinese take-out food is one of the most popular foods in American society. For Spiller, Chinese take-out menus are not only about exotic food, they are filled with diversity and aesthetic phenomena. Original Chinese traditional culture mixes with the living process of Americanized Chinese culture like continuous hot streams in a big, versatile pot. Spiller has made every endeavor to collect Chinese menus from around the world. He has them from 1879 to today. As such, his Chinese menu collection has become one of the most extreme metaphorical symbols in the phenomenological aesthetics of American cultural diversity. (Kin Tsuei Chang, Ph.D., Art Education, New York University)

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