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Food Junk

I don’t have any favorite menus in my own collection, because all of them (over 15,000) are there for a reason, but I do cherish a 1930 menu from the Graf Zeppelin. It evokes a mode of travel and style of dining now entirely absent from American life—the most elegant and relaxed of all the many unsuccessful ways we’ve tried to dine in the sky. Since I have a weakness for die-cut menus (menus cut into shapes) and American popular culture, I would put the 1939 “Triple XXX” pig menu right beside the Graf Zeppelin. This popular eatery in Austin, Texas, helped introduce the idea of drive-in dining and take-out curb service—another cultural revolution, nice menu graphics aside.

The 1876 die-cut menu from Les Trois Frères Provençaux has great historical appeal; it comes from the impeccable French restaurant that operated at the United States Centennial in Philadelphia. But what makes this menu special is the meal itself, served at a private dinner for the Restaurant Committee of the Centennial. This rare menu not only provides an intimate look at the sort of food prepared for the restaurant’s most distinguished guests, it raises interesting questions about what French cuisine meant to people who’d never journeyed to Europe.

While many people collect culinary ephemera for the nostalgia factor or eye appeal, I collect for the little stories.

Without a doubt, trade cards represent the largest block of culinary ephemera now offered on eBay; the numbers exceed many thousands on any given day. Hours of patient digging in individual sellers’ stores is often the only way to get a clear picture of the grand inventory available. Trade cards were collected in the Victorian period, especially by children who assembled them into scrap books, so the market today is flooded with items removed from these books. Subject matter ranges from the promotion of products like iron cook stoves, baking powder, health panaceas, and dried fish, to fresh fruits, confectionery, ice cream, and oysters. Oddly, old time ice-cream parlors also sold oysters in season, and the Baltimore trade card featuring Jumbo the Elephant dining on oysters with his elephantine buddies is much sought after for its wonderful graphics. In fact, anything connected with the “Jumbo Craze” in the early 1880s is fair game for collectors, just as the “Mikado Craze” shifted attention to all things Japanese in the late 1880s.

Postcards are another favorite of mine, perhaps because I have a doctorate in food tourism.* These cards document a wide variety of places and events—restaurant interiors for example—and the messages written on the back are almost as revealing as the pictures on the other side. There were also promotional postcards, like this circa 1912 Falstaff Beer photo postcard from St. Louis. With its coy, late-Victorian dash of sex appeal, this postcard must have been a popular conversation piece in saloons across the Midwest.

Postcards also dealt in humor and sometimes carried a political message. Consider the card “It’s Pie”: If you don’t know what sort of pie would have an American flag decorating it as a centerpiece, then you don’t know the answer to the question: Just How American Are You? This card was issued in 1907 during the excitement of the Jamestown Exposition, a critical period in American history when the country began to flex its muscle on the international scene, and patriotic themes, images of nationhood and worries over the diluting effects of immigration, all came to the fore. That all these themes could find expression in a postcard image of apple pie, a national symbol of American culture, speaks volumes about the immense power of culinary ephemera. Sometimes sad, sometimes humorous, America’s culinary ephemera faithfully recorded a young nation’s growing pains.

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Nicholas A. BasbanesWilliam Woys Weaver is an internationally known food historian and the author of 14 books and innumerable articles in leading food journals. *Of writing a 400-page Ph.D. dissertation for University College, in Dublin, Ireland, on “Food, Tourism and Cultural Identity Among the Pennsylvania Dutch,” he jokingly writes, “With the fortune I spent, as a transatlantic commuter, I could buy several British Airways planes at this point—I paid tuition in Euros and could hardly afford a cup of tea in Dublin, etc., where prices went out of sight and still are.” Weaver is a contributing editor to Gourmet and Mother Earth News as well as an adjunct professor of food studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He maintains the Roughwood Seed Collection, of some 4,000 heirloom food plants, and the Roughwood Collection of American Food Studies, consisting of approximately 15,000 culinary imprints and 30,000 items of culinary ephemera. His forthcoming book, Culinary Ephemera: Sleuthing the Paper Trails of American Food History, will be published in color next year by the University of California Press.