A Story of Los Angeles Through Its Restaurant Menus | KCET
A Story of Los Angeles Through Its Restaurant Menus
You've already seen some of the historic menus that we've culled from the nearly 9,000 in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. We've highlighted famous L.A. restaurants, forgotten food trends, historic Chinese menus, and the evolution of Mexican cuisine in L.A.
Now some 200 menus are in book called "To Live and Dine in L.A.: Menus and the Making of the Modern City," written and edited by USC professor Josh Kun. He navigates the menus like a cultural map, breaking down implications of race, class, and politics through the presentation of food.
The book release coincides with the opening of an interactive exhibition at Central Library's Getty Gallery. From June 13 through November 14, menus will be displayed in a manner that replicates a dining experience, including a rotating bakery display case of menus.
To make this an inclusive project for all Angelenos, the public has an opportunity to create the "ultimate L.A. meal" by filling in a blank menu: the contributions will be included in the Central Library exhibit. More details can be found here.
I spoke with Kun about "To Live and Dine in L.A." and the intrinsic link between L.A.'s restaurants and the cultural history of the city. Here's an edited version of our conversation.
This is a really fun book! How did you choose which menus to include?
Josh Kun: I could rewrite this book for the next ten years and produce a new book every year, and that was the hardest thing about the project. This topic is so massive. I didn't set out to write a book that was exhaustive, but I picked the story I was most equipped to tell. My first impulse was to not write a book that could be simply read as a visual time machine, or a trip back to past, in a nostalgic or kitschy kind of way, but to use menus as a way to understand the city. I wanted to look at the ethnic shifts, demographic shifts, and in ways I didn't predict, I started to look at gender politics. There were all these ways to start a conversation. Hopefully this book addresses some serious contemporary issues that have had a long historical past.
You talk a lot about race and class in the book. What's historically unique about the dining experience in L.A.?
Kun:You can do city-by-city portraits, but the menus reflect a particular history of L.A. The city has always played a dual role, with a dual identity. L.A. represents the quintessential city in one sense, but also a completely atypical experience. L.A. has such a unique history, which separates it from the greater national consciousness. It's the emblem of the American future. The menus repeat national trends too, but also speak to very local identity and issues.
As a historian, what would you say about today's menus that lack the flourish of the menus in your book, where now you have utilitarian Chinese menus and minimalist menus from high-end restaurants?
Kun: On the one hand, restaurants are more dense and varied than ever. But it really depends where you look. There are indeed some that go utilitarian, to the daily updated, seasonal menu writing style. Roy Choi is doing something interesting though -- he uses menus in a way that are a kind of throw-back. If you look at the menu at Pot, it's an incredibly designed, visual experience. It's very autobiographical and he has cleverly named dishes reflecting iconic street names. It wraps you in a prose narrative that you already experience before the food even arrives. Chefs like Roy are using the menu as a narrative device that helps construct the dining experience and specifically using it to tell a story about L.A.
You mentioned in your book that the Los Angeles Women's Saloon and Parlor was a lost menu that you wanted to get your hands on. Were there other menus that you wanted to include but were missing from the collection? Were there stories you wanted to, but couldn't, tell?
Josh Kun: That menu was a white whale for me. It was the menu I really wanted to find to add to the collection. The other area that was underrepresented not just in L.A., but nationwide, were African American-owned restaurants. I think we did a good job adding and telling these stories, but going through the archives, it was surprising to find how few black-owned restaurant menus were collected across the country. And I hope a graduate student reads this. The ultimate dream with this book is to launch a million dissertations.
How do you see people approaching or using this book, especially chefs, foodies, etc.?
Kun: I think there's an academic side of me that's really excited about the possibilities but also understands that the work it does is inherently limited. I'm hoping people read it and like it, but also react to its shortcomings, and say, this one paragraph could be its own book. I hope it becomes a part of a larger outpouring of L.A. food history in readily available form.
If there was one menu you could eat from back in time, which would it be?
Kun: I would have loved to have been at the dinner from the earliest menu from 1875, the "Vintage Feast and Ball" held at Don Mateo Keller's in downtown. I would have loved to see the crowd, and try the curry paste, the veal and ham pies, and cold collations. I would have loved to be at this feast and ball in the heart of Los Angeles. I probably wouldn't have been invited but I would have loved to crash it.
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