The University of Toronto is forging into the Chinese New Year with exciting news: it has acquired the largest collection of Chinese food menus in the world.
The unique treasure was bought from famed collector Harley Spiller in 2014. The university paid $40,000 for the collection of approximately 10,000 menus. Researchers are now working on sorting through the treasure trove of menus, organizing, describing and digitizing it concisely.
Just as art plays a major role in documenting history, the menus tell stories that go deeper than an itemized list of food and prices.
“The menus themselves are the most remarkable elements in there — they’re an artifact of a relationship,” Daniel Bender, director of the UTSC Culinaria Research Centre, tells Yahoo Canada News. “It’s really a conversation between a cook, the owner of the restaurant and the customers. Sometimes it’s a friendly conversation and sometimes it can be fraught with tension.”
The majority of the menus are from the United States, covering all 50 states, as well as from around the world. Of the American menus, the highest number is from New York, where Spiller lives.
The collection will be a goldmine for researchers from many different disciplines. Some, for example, have dipped into the collection to support their work tracing the history of chop suey, while others are interested in analyzing menus from the 20s. The earliest menu in the collection is from 1896.
“It’s about food studies, so it’s a particular class of materials,” Victoria Owen, chief librarian at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus (UTSC) says. “There are many things that can be gleaned from this…prices, locale, change in menus, the graphics and then you can pinpoint them more closely in time.”
Bender says the reason it took until now to announce the news of the collection was to get it in workable order. It was transported to the university in 50 boxes.
“It’s a massive collection and we wanted to be able to get the library in the position where they would be able to have it close to where researchers can get into it,” he says. “It’s going to change the way we understand Chinese food, cities and our every day lives, as well as the cultural expression of Chinese communities on a global scale.”
Menus aren’t the only items found in the collection. There are also chopsticks, postcards, plastic spoons and toys, such as the pet wok, something akin to an Easy-Bake Oven.