Menus may seem like just another part of everyday life. We see them everywhere – up on the wall at the coffee shop, printed on a piece of paper at our favorite lunch spot, handed to us in a leather bound book when we are seated for a fancy dinner, even online at that late night delivery place. What we rarely think about is where menus come from and how they got to be this way. This is the aim of the current Burns Library exhibit, “Are You Being Served? Historical Menus from the Archives.” Curated by the Archives department, the exhibition features menus and items pulled from Boston College University archives as well as special collections.
Looking through historical menus, you can find strange and unfamiliar dishes, like mock turtle soup, chicken a là princesse, and even clysmic waters. But while old menus offer us an array of entertaining dishes, they also give us a unique look at the way people ate, drank, and socialized in the past. By looking at restaurant menus from late eighteenth century all the way up to today, you can see how dining out has changed over time. From restaurant menus featuring a simple menu with few options, to modern menus with pages and pages of choices, to fancy menus written in French, to chalkboards featuring daily offerings, the items in this exhibit showcase the changing world of restaurant menus both in America and abroad.
Menus don’t only show up in restaurants, though. Some of the most intriguing menus in the exhibit are from events like lavish dinners held by Boston clubs and associations, literary luncheons in honor of famous writers, installation dinners for Boston College presidents, and celebratory menus for Boston College’s football team. For a look at local events, check out the menus of the Commercial Club of Boston, featuring colorful menus decorated with bows, ribbons, drawings, and intricate details. Since the dinners were organized to celebrate special events or to promote the club and its various causes, the menus were often extravagant. In a similar vein, literary luncheons held to honor writers like Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rex Stout featured themed menus centered around the authors or the literary group.
Menus in these collections are not limited to local Boston events, though. Many of the menus in the exhibit were saved from events all over the country and abroad, including menus from football championships like the Sugar Bowl or railroad menus from Alfred Noyes’ travels. Far-flung Jesuits brought back menus from their travels. Even Boston College presidential installations could have an international flair – a menu for the installation of President Louis J. Gallagher, SJ, features a Russian theme!
From the fancy meals of society events and testimonial dinners, to the rather grim fare available to officers serving in the Philippines, to the signature cocktails offered at one of Boston’s rowdier eating joints, this exhibit dishes up a savory stew of cultural, social, and culinary history. To find out more about the exhibit, visit the Burns library from January 21-May 7 and stay tuned for future blog posts.
To see more menu images, visit the Burns library flickr page.
- Jessica Meyer and Xaviera Flores, Processing Assistants, John J. Burns Library