Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A new anthology proves L.A.’s historic menus are also delicious cultural artifacts.
L.A.’s food scene today is hailed for an unmatched blending of international eats: Seekers of Korean beef tacos and horchata lattes need look no further.
But it wasn’t always that way. Since its big-city beginnings in the late 19th century, L.A. was long maligned as a “culinary backwater.” How did the city come to flourish as a hotbed of global deliciousness? Who dreamed the dream of L.A. cuisine, who’s been ordering it, and what does that say about the city’s evolution?
Out June 13 from Angel City Press, To Live and Dine in L.A., a new (and delightfully titled) anthology of vintage restaurant menus, begins to answer those questions and more. Drawn from the vast collections of the Los Angeles Public Library, more than 200 menus from a century’s worth of L.A. restaurants make a feast for the eyes. Even better are author Josh Kun’s insightful readings of menus as cultural, architectural, political, and socio-economic texts.
“How food gets talked is indicative of shifts in how people thought of food and the experience of dining,” says Kun, who is also a professor of communication at USC and the author of a similar book on LAPL’s sheet-music collections. When turn-of-the-century journalists and critics dismissed or insulted the L.A. food scene, restaurants reacted, creating dishes in which the main ingredient was arguably civic pride. Menus touted their L.A. originals as early as the 1930s, inventing stuff like avocado and cottage-cheese “Weight Watcher” salads and the very first cheeseburger, dubbed the “Aristocratic Hamburger Sandwich” at Pasadena’s Rite Spot.
Kun also shows L.A.’s menus to be demographic media. Tracking the relative abundance, or lack thereof, of menus in particular neighborhoods reveals who was living there and how much money they spent on dinner. They indicate architectural trends, from novelty log-cabin-esque buildings to the drive-in. Menus also reflect race and gender norms of the day. The designs on “Golden Pagoda” and “Kelbo’s” menus are an “example of what L.A. does best: Commodify the fantasy of something instead of dealing with its reality,” writes Kun. Elsewhere, items like “the Businessman’s Lunch” and “Free Baby Food” let you know which gender restaurants wanted to cater to.
Kun smartly connects the politics of yesterday’s menus to the very real food issues L.A. faces today—namely, food insecurity. More than 80 percent of L.A. Unified School District students qualify for free or reduced lunches. Countywide, one in 10 families struggle with food insecurity. Menus, Kun argues, serve as one way of tracing a city’s complicated relationship to food. To Live and Dine in L.A., he hopes, is only the beginning of such food-oriented historical inquiry, which Kun says he found very little of in his research.
“Like any book that deals with a cultural archive, this book only speaks to the presence of that archive’s artifacts,” Kun says. “A lot gets left out. I hope people like [the book] and I hope people don’t like it enough to write their own. I want this to be an avalanche for L.A. historical food books, which we just don’t have.”
To Live and Dine in L.A. also includes essays and “menu re-mixes” from prominent food critics and chefs. It will be accompanied by an exhibition of select menus at the L.A. Public Library’s Central location, as well as series of food-centric public programs across all branches.
All images courtesy of Angel City Press.