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Off the Menu: On Menus (or Why I Collect Them)

by Harley Spiller


Spring Volume: 1997 Issue: 4(1) page(s): 9 and 10

I have some six thousand Chinese menus. Most were slipped under my apartment door or pulled from restaurants which hang them outside on hooks fashioned out of coat hangers. The menus were fun and educational reading, so into a shoebox they went.

I did not know it at first, but menus offer much more than food. They are a fascinating glimpse into society. They invariably provide information about their time and place, reflecting the trends and tastes of particular eras. Menus store a wealth of information.

Chinese restaurants deliver to every nook and cranny of Fun City and the takeout menu is their most successful form of advertising. Some say Misa Chang pioneered this advertising form on Upper Broadway in the late 1970's. Surely her Empire Szechuan Restaurant is among the most ignominious of eateries, having been the subject of much community protest, even court action. What's the brouhaha about? Takeout menus.

As a natural extension of my interest in the menu phenomenon, I have also gathered fifty or so 'anti-menu' signs. City dwellers feel that the proliferation of menus lowers the quality of life, so hundreds of residential buildings post stern warnings against slipping menus into foyers. These placards are often bilingual and usually take a nasty tone. I feel compelled to un-tape them and keep them as part of the collection. One of my favorites says 'No Menus - No Nothing - No No No!' Another goes so far as to proclaim a phony 'Official $50 fine.'

My collection has given me entree into many new worlds. You read Alison Ryley's article on the New York Public Library's menu collection in the third issue of the third volume of Flavor and Fortune, but did you know that The New York Historical Society and the Johnson and Wales Culinary Institute also maintain huge menu repositories? Surely there are many other such organizations and individuals worldwide who are stockpiling menus for future generations. One of my menus even has a sticker announcing 'SOUVENIR MENU ONLY,' proof that other people like to save menus too. I am not alone.

The menu collection has led me to be interviewed by a Pulitzer Prize winning author, and to serve as the model for a fictional character in a Taiwanese novel. I have been visited by a graduate student from Duke University, and met many wonderful friends and colleagues through my membership in the Institute for the Advancement of the Science and Art of Chinese Cuisine. The story of the collection has been told in hundreds of magazines and newspapers and on some thirty television programs, from a two-minute spot on CNN Headline News to an appearance on Geraldo.

This attention has turned my interest into a passion. I have come to accept the facts that the menus will not go away and that I have been cast as a 'menu man.' Upon learning of my hobby, the host of Detroit's Chinese cooking television program sent me her collection of nearly four hundred menus, one from each of the Chinese restaurants in the Detroit Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area. I frequently receive letters but every time I am sure interest has dwindled, someone will telephone and rekindle the flame.

When the collection began, menus did not have much more value than that of being a simple tool for ordering supper. All the collecting had been done for free. The idea was that the menus and accompanying paraphernalia was being given away. I did not have to nudge maître-d's. This was advertising stuff that was meant to be taken.

Each menu in my collection has its own special charm. It does not matter if the printing and paper are of inferior quality, I'm always taken by their individual and unique qualities. One of my favorite menus is a gift from Imogene Lim, the lady who wrote the book on the 'Chop Suey sandwich.' She parted with her spare copy of a 1950s menu complete with sexist depictions of Asian women, a not uncommon graphic theme. Richly colored and carefully composed, the menu is from the 1950s, from the luxurious Ruby Foo's in Montreal, which served some honest Chinese meals amidst the chow mein, Weiner Schnitzel, and Beef Bourguignonne. I wish I could have tried 'Ho Yue Guy Look' or Tender Spring Chicken, cleverly cut with its bone to absorb the natural flavor of the Cantonese Epicure. The dish consists of 'Chicken, Unhatched Eggs, Garden Fresh Vegetables, Black Bean, a pinch of Garlic and sauteed with Wine and Oyster Sauce.' There is a lot to learn from this single entry alone.

Ruby Foo's is the same restaurant that printed the stickers saying 'SOUVENIR MENU ONLY.' The stickers go on to warn that 'prices may be slightly out of date.' I'll say. Bottles of Moet and Chandon's Dom Perignon cost only twenty-three dollars, Canadian! Menus that provide such hard evidence for economists can do the same for doctors, scientists, educators, artists, even laymen.

Like many others, I fell into Chinese food because it seemed the least expensive way to eat gourmet food. Menus, for me, were once a lark for their errors in English. Nowadays a careful reading has become like a tutorial in diverse topics. My oldest menu, from 1916, has generated a lot of interest but none more surprising than when it was reproduced in Print Collector's Newsletter, a magazine for high-level art buyers. Menu's can even be political, but that's best saved for another story.

I have coughed up cash for menus only three times. Once for a rather nondescript plastic bound number from the 1970s. I could not believe it cost five bucks. Still, it was the first time I had ever seen a Chinese menu for sale, so I bought it. Am I crazy? For that price, I could have snacked on dim sum for days! Nonetheless, if you think paying five bucks for an old menu is nuts, read on Flavor and Fortune fanatic, read on.

My article on Hong Kong, in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 2 Number 3, suggested eschewing Yat Chau and here's why. Our party arrived with great anticipation to the Yat Chau Health Restaurant, very excited to try this unique and famous style of doctor/restaurant. 'Come to Yat Chau Health Restaurant,' their advertising proclaims, 'not only for a stronger and healthier you, but also to enjoy our imperial service.' Perhaps they meant 'imperious;' for the staff was downright rude. Ashtrays, fake flowers, and salty peanuts graced every table, and their trumpeted seasonal menus were nowhere in evidence. Nonetheless, having come from halfway around the world, we proceeded.

After a brief visit with doctors, we were shown a list of dishes that had been prescribed. We ate family style, seemingly contrary to Yat Chau's espoused philosophy of 'medicinal food according to individual constitutions.' To be fair, the food was expensive but decent. The menu, however, was extremely interesting. I felt sure that tourists requested copies frequently, and equally sure that our maître`d would not part with one under any circumstances.

Undaunted, I asked for a copy of the menu and was told it was unavailable. I pressed on, noting that collecting menus is part of my job as a museum professional. The maître-d' remained marmoreal. I offered to buy a menu but was told this was impossible. I then offered to pay for a photocopy of the menu. To this he agreed and returned twenty minutes later with a poorly executed eight-page copy and announced that it would cost two hundred Hong Kong dollars. I bristled and the price dropped to one hundred fifty and he said: "final." I paid and stewed for almost a year until I learned form the Hong Kong Consumer Council that Yat Chau had gone out of business, leaving therefore that the matter of my complaint 'be put for our record purpose.'

Here is the third menu-buying tale, one where my behavior was inscrutable even to myself. I actually paid for a menu that had been offered for free. The scene was Guangzhou's infamous snake restaurant (see the second issue in Flavor and Fortune's third volume). It was obvious that any tourist would love to bring home a menu that genuinely offered cat, beaver, scorpion and, of course, more than one hundred snake dishes. The waitress said no. I offered the equivalent of ten bucks US. She said no and proceeded to turn down my twenty dollar offer. Most of the waitresses were gathered around by this time. When I proffered thrity dollars, she went to get the manager. I showed him an article about my collection that had appeared in a Taiwanese newspaper. By now, even the most jaded of waiters had clustered about. The manager read the story for a while and then handed me the menu with a big grin. Elated with the gift, I exited in a sea of befuddled smiles, having left a twenty dollar tip, massive or perhaps even crazy by Chinese standards.

It's OK though. Over the years, the menus have generated a lot of fun and even a bit of pocket money. I stumped the celebrity panel on To Tell The Truth and won one thosand dollars. Ralph Lauren once rented a 1940s menu to garnish the front window of his flagship store. When all is said and done, however, love, not money, is why I save the menus. No, I do not love the menus proper. There are plenty I have not even read thoroughly. Most of all, I continue to save menus because they connect me with people. That's the heart of the matter.

On another matter: Several days after the submission of my article for the last issue of Flavor and Fortune, I returned to Brooklyn's Little Shanghai, only to find it replaced by a Hong Kong seafood restaurant. They'd vanished again. I had already drafted this postscript, begging readers to let me know if they spotted Little Shanghai, when I saw the brand-new Shanghai Gourmet at 57 Mott Street. They're back, again, with a new name. The original management redux-redux, this time with an even bigger menu.
Harley Spiller has been a contributing writer for Flavor and Fortune for over a year now. His stories from overseas will continue in the next issue with a report on the Chinese food scene in Australia. In advance he asks: Is there such a thing as Kung Pao Koala? Stay posted mates.

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