Works in Progress - Autumn 2012

What Menus Tell Us

By Chloe Taft | March 18, 2013

• Servings of shrimp cocktail, offered for 40 cents in 1921, have since inflated in cost faster than the dollar.

• Potato chips originated in Saratoga Springs, New York, and were first known as Saratoga chips. At the turn of the 20th century, they surged in popularity across the country, as a side dish in fine restaurants, before they began to be mass produced.

• Sushi and Indian restaurants proliferated in 1960s America on waves of immigration reform and multiculturalism.

Those are among the culinary backstories emerging from the New York Public Library’s archive of 45,000 menus—thanks to the power of crowdsourcing. The library launched its “What’s on the menu?” website ( in April 2011. Within three months, online volunteers had transcribed the contents of 9,000 scanned menus from the 1840s to today. “We weren’t expecting such wonderful participation,” says Rebecca Federman, the project’s co-curator with Michael Inman. With thousands of anonymous, possibly hungry transcribers logging on from around the country and the world, the online database now exceeds 15,000 completed menus and a million dishes, searchable by year and popularity. Digitally aggregating food and pricing data over such a large sample promises to reveal patterns not visible when the physical menus are examined in isolation.

Plans include linking the menus to the library’s map collection. Crowdsourcing not only gives physical repositories new relevance in a digital age, it also creatively stretches cultural institutions’ shrinking funds. With thousands of menus still in line and the potential to link “What’s on the menu?” to similar collections at other libraries, “This project could go on for quite a while,” Federman says.

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