The Real Food of Fiction

Monday May 21, 2018 Written by Kane


The New York Public Library has a collection of over 45,000 restaurant menus dating from the 1840s, an archive originated by startlingly named Miss Frank E Buttolph, who added over 25 thousand menus to the collection between 1900 and 1924. Over a quarter of the collection has been scanned and is available on their fascinating What’s on the Menu? site, where – through some truly valiant transcribing efforts – there’s now over 1.3 million searchable dishes on the database. Want to know how much a plate of boiled calf’s head in brain sauce would set you back at the sunset of the Civil War? This thing’s your guy. (At Parker House in Boston, Massachusetts circa 1865 you’d be out 50 cents.)

As is often the case with these repositories, once initial minutes of idle clicking no longer provide entertainment, one has to find ways to parse such an overwhelming volume of gustatory data. And is also so often the case, fictional worlds turn out to be a pretty good way of understanding the real one.

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Going by restaurants mentioned in Mad Men, Don Draper, for instance, could have ordered a lobster roll with bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and Smithfield Ham rolled in crisp pastry shells from Peking House or veal fricassée à l’ancienne with rice pilaf from the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel.

Jumping forward in time American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman might have, between energetic incidents of possibly-imagined homicide, ordered asparagus vinaigrette then a broiled swordfish steak with lime hollandaise from the New York Yacht Club.

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There’s even something for Wallace Shawn completists – a scan of a 1984 menu from the Café Des Artistes, the putative setting for My Dinner With Andre. His mystifyingly entertaining conversation with Andre Gregory might have taken place over a buffet platter of assorted planked cochonnailles with pâtés, sweetbread headcheese and other charcuterie. Maybe a lightly toasted curry steak tartar with pine nuts. Though, of course, the film was actually filmed in Richmond, Virginia.