The Evolution of New York’s Palate: From Turtle Soup to Green Markets

Updated: May 24, 2012 at 12:40 PM

Update: It’s been a little over a year since the New York Public Library began digitizing its massive collection of historic menus. In June, the library will open a related exhibition about the city’s role in the development of modern lunch. Before you check out the exhibition, revisit MetroFocus’ story about the evolution of restaurant menus in New York City.

Forget Shake Shack burgers and momofuku’s spicy pork sausage. Back in the day (the day being the 19th century, in this case), turtle soup was the hot ticket item on the menu and oyster houses were as omnipresent and affordable as Gray’s Papayas.

Earlier this year, the New York Public Library began digitizing and transcribing more than 25,000 menus collected between 1899 and 1923 by menu archivist Miss Frank E. Buttolph for its, “What’s on the Menu?” project.

The seven menus below feature commentary from William Grimes, former New York Times food critic and author of “Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York,” and Annie Hauck-Lawson, CUNY food professor and author of “Gastropolis: Food and New York City.”

The menus provide a rare glimpse into the city’s ever-changing dining habits, including the economics of the 19th century oyster craze, the bohemian origins of foodie adventurism and the class discrimination inherent in early French bills of fare.

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