By Yvette Yurubi, Reference Assistant, Special Collections
There is much to be learned about a region’s culture and economy through looking at something as commonplace as a simple restaurant menu. Some of the world’s oldest menus trace back to clay tablets written by the Sumerians who devoted time to listing out foods that they would serve their gods. Since then, menus have become a daily part of our lives, so much so that they tend to go unnoticed beyond their utilitarian purposes. But they also have an important use in libraries and archives, shedding light on moments in time and highlighting changes in the world at large.
In a general sense, menus provide a very graphic and immediate window into the way economy, class, and cuisine affect one another. If you ever want to know where the upper echelons of any society chose to dine or what cuisine they revered as their finest, there is no better source than menus. Hotel and cruise menus, in particular, capture the cultural conscience in terms of what can be classified as luxury and exotic dining while menus for local eateries capture what the working class and less affluent chose to eat on a daily basis. Furthermore, they depict how the nation’s fluctuating GDP and increase or limits in global trade affected the prices of common, regional dishes and foreign dishes over time, showing the delicate interplay between supply and demand.
Florida’s menus, in particular, exhibit the rich history of the many diasporas that make up the state’s diverse population and a growing maritime and agricultural economy as new businesses started to emerge throughout the 1900s. The previous uninhabited swamp lands of Florida were purchased by visionaries like George E. Merrick, founder of Coral Gables, who sought to turn these lands into profit, thus aiding Florida in becoming an agricultural center that quickly expanded and prospered over time. As Florida’s land grew more attractive to other business moguls due to the year-round warm temperatures, its prime fishing locations, and its beautiful beaches, the hospitality industry also flourished.
In the 1960s and the decades that followed, mass diaspora from the Caribbean islands contributed to a dramatic cultural shift that had also affected the local cuisine, particularly in South Florida. Spanish and Caribbean food were rapidly becoming a staple there, introducing native Floridians and vacationers to a new array of dishes and flavors that would eventually expand internationally over time. These trends could be observed in the way traditional American dishes were being replaced by a growing obsession among food enthusiasts in fusion cuisine. The onset of the new millennium also brought about more awareness to health issues and lifestyle choices, paving the way for gluten-free, low-fat, and vegetarian dishes becoming ubiquitous among modern restaurant menus.
As part of our initiative to document Florida’s unique and evolving cultural history, we have been collecting menus from all over Florida and adding them our new Florida Menu Collection. We invite you now to come bring us all the menus you happen to find while dining out or strewn among your old belongings and to donate them to the University of Miami Special Collections department here on the 8th Floor of the Otto G. Richter Library.