Food history interests even people who didn’t relish history class. Who doesn’t like food? The New York Public Library has an ongoing digital collection of restaurant menus ranging from the 1840s to today, titled “What’s on the menu?” This project explores different restaurants throughout the years, what they served, and the cost of food. It encompasses both economic and cultural histories throughout the decades and is of interest to historians, chefs, and a broader audience as well. It was launched as a digital crowdsourcing project in 2011, and the project of collecting these menus began in 1900.
As of March 2022, there are a total of 17,500 menus uploaded to the database. Menus are organized by decade, and there is a database of every individual dish as well as how many menus they appear on. There are no new menus uploaded, however, there is plenty that needs a second pair of eyes for review. I can’t speak for the ease of the original process of transcribing the menus, however, for reviewing these menus it is a matter of going through the items previously tagged and either approving their transcription or making a quick edit. Transcriptions focus on the name of the dish as well as the price. Anyone can edit these menu transcriptions without creating an account on the website, which was a purposeful choice by NYPL Labs to keep this project accessible. Menus that need to be reviewed can be accessed from the launch page, though there isn’t a search engine to find specific menus.
I reviewed the menu for Savoy Grill, which was dated from the year 1959. It was simple enough to review the transcriptions made by another user, though I found marking the review as completed was a bit more challenging as the link was not as prominent compared to others on the website. The entire review process for this menu took less than an hour. I can see how it would take longer for an individual who created the first transcription for a menu, as each item has to be tagged and labeled. To tag an item, it is as easy as clicking on where it is within the image to add the dish name and price. This requires some precision, or when you go to enter the information the text itself may not be fully visible while you type. Users can indicate if the text was not fully readable in their edit as well.
Overall, this project was easy to navigate and complete. The website design appears to be slightly outdated, however this likely makes it more accessible to older generations contributing to this project. The data is accessible for public use, and downloadable spreadsheets are updated twice a month to reflect the full collection. Looking at menus from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first century is fascinating, and from the vast number of contributors, other people must feel similarly and found this website to be accessible as well. “What’s on the menu?” provides a positive example of a digital crowdsourcing project.