What’s On the Menu? Libraries Know.

By Herb Gardener –

The New York Public Library

In 1919 New York, Joe’s Restaurant on Brooklyn’s Fulton St. served up 416 dishes. How do I know what was on the menu? I visited New York Public Library’s (NYPL) What’s on the Menu? transcription site, http://menus.nypl.org/about. It’s the place where foodies congregate to learn about restaurants and menus of the past and to contribute to this valuable resource.

Menus are the restaurant leftovers that never spoil, at least not the ones that are digitized. But as able custodians of the Big Apple’s cultural and culinary heritage the NYPL seeks more than mere preservation. With over one million dishes transcribed the lure of recording food history for public access one byte at a time has proven irresistible to many, including me.

“Right now, the only information that is digitally searchable in our menus is the descriptive data created for each item when they were cataloged,” said the expert I talked to the library. “This includes useful things like the name of the restaurant, its geographical location, date etc. But the actual menu contents — all the dishes and wines once upon a time offered to the customer as they pondered the options for their meal — is only accessible through good old-fashioned sifting.”

I encourage you to visit the site and click on the menus link. Just the names— Persian Room, Metropolitan Club, Broadway Central Hotel, Healy’s Forty-second St. Restaurant, R.M.S. Majestic — will evoke place and period and defy you to ignore the romance we associate with dining out. The transcription tool is easy to use; the menus and establishments (retrospective prices, too) will be hard to forget.

In honor of Adam Gopnik’s recent interview on America’s Test Kitchen Radio, and Labor Day cook-out procrastinators, I am reaching back to “The Best of America’s Test Kitchen 2007: The Year’s Best Recipes, Equipment Reviews, and Tastings” for All-American Potato Salad. Since I can’t help tinkering I replaced the dill pickles with green olives, added olive jar liquor on the hot potatoes and scant red wine vinegar to taste when combining spuds and dressing. I garnished with flat leaf parsley, paprika, and a parting shot of hot sauce — outstanding.


All-American Potato Salad

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4 –inch cubes


3 tablespoons dill pickle juice

1 tablespoon yellow mustard

½ cup mayonnaise

¼ cup sour cream

¼ cup finely chopped dill pickles

1 celery rib, chopped fine

½ small red onion, chopped fine

½ teaspoon celery seed


2 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and cut into ¼ inch dice (optional)

Cover the potatoes with water by 1 inch in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Stir in 1 teaspoon salt, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer until the potatoes are tender, 10 to 15 minutes.Drain the potatoes thoroughly and spread them in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Mix 2 tablespoons of the pickle juice and the mustard together in a small bowl. Drizzle the pickle juice mixture over the potatoes and gently toss until evenly coated. Refrigerate the potatoes until cooled, about 30 minutes.

Mix the mayonnaise, sour cream, chopped pickles, celery, red onion, remaining one tablespoon pickle juice, ½ teaspoon salt, celery seed, and ¼ teaspoon pepper together in a large bowl. Add the cooled potatoes and gently toss to combine. Cover and refrigerate until chilled, about 30 minutes. Gently stir in eggs, if using, just before serving.


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