Nicola Twilley (@nicolatwilley) is the author of the blog “Edible Geography” and a co-host of the Gastropod podcast. Work by this author that we’ve included on the UC Food Observer: The ultimate cheese plate: Gastropod on the origins, history and science of cheese; “No scrubs”: breeding a better bull; and Savor flavor: Gastropod looks at the science and history behind synthetic flavors.
In this piece, written for The New Yorker – to which she’s a regular contributor – Twilley writes about a new book and exhibition – To Live and Dine in L.A. – that traces the growth and changing demographics of one of our nation’s great cities: Los Angeles.
The hook? The basis of the book and exhibition is a collection of more than 9,000 restaurant menus – dating from 1875 to the present – found in the Rare Books Room at the Los Angeles Public Library. And it makes sense, as Twilley argues, because “examined in aggregate, menus can reveal more than what kind of food was for sale, at what price, and when. Within them are clues to much larger stories as well: population shifts, environmental changes, technological developments, and cultural transformations.”
The editor of the book and exhibition curator is Josh Kun, a professor at USC. His methodology?
“He began sifting through the collection according to geography, working with his students to pin each menu to a restaurant address. After all, he pointed out, the French, who invented both the restaurant and the menu, use the same word, carte, to mean both map and menu.”
“Kun found that the menus did indeed map the growth of the city, tying together eating habits and urban infrastructure as Los Angeles spread out from its downtown core over the course of the twentieth century. As the automobile rose to dominance in the nineteen-thirties, for example, Wilshire Boulevard became an important artery—and the city’s “first mobile restaurant row,” as reflected in the collection’s earliest drive-in restaurant menus.”
1965 was a pivotal year (Twilley cites immigration reform and the unrest in Watts). At that time, the menu collection began reflecting the city’s growing diversity, “building toward the contemporary multicultural, multiracial food scene for which Los Angeles is known today.”
Kun supplemented the library’s collection with menus from private collectors, which filled some information gaps. The “meta-narratives of race, gender, and urban development” aren’t the only topics that Kun covers. He also looks at the actual contents of “Angeleno plates.” Any surprises? A few.
“Kun was surprised to find that today’s emphasis on locally sourced ingredients had a precursor in the city’s very earliest menus. If you go back to the start of the twentieth century, he said, and look at “everyday, working and middle-class lunchroom menus in L.A.—most of them will tell you where everything comes from”: sanddabs from Catalina, chicken from a farm in Pomona. Eating local made sense in an era before the advent of widespread mechanical refrigeration, but listing the sources on the menu was, Kun explained, part of the larger narrative of California as an agricultural Eden—an abundant landscape of sunshine, endless orange groves, and good health. In light of this knowledge, the rise of California Cuisine, with chefs like Wolfgang Puck creating dishes that showcase fresh local produce, can be understood as an extension of the city’s earliest dining trends.”
Kun’s takeaway? L.A., in most respects, defies easy categorization.
“L.A. is a city that has always existed as a collection of multiple desires, multiple histories, multiple pasts, and multiple futures,” he said. “I’d like to think that that is what the menus show us—how hard it is to find a single narrative that captures the city.”
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