To Live and Dine in LA: Menus and the Soul of a City

Food Features
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To Live and Dine in LA is so much more than a book. Based on the Los Angeles Public Library’s collection of close to 15,000 menus, the coffee table-sized volume displays images of a curated selection of these menus, dating back to the late 1800s. While it’s fun to flip through the colorful and often quirky assortment from a purely design perspective, that’s not really the point. Or maybe it is, but it’s just one of many points the author, Josh Kun, makes in the book. Kun really looks at the stories the menus tell—stories about food trends, design trends, demographic trends. Stories about the evolution of the food and, more importantly, the people of Los Angeles. “Instead of this being a nostalgia trip, we tried to think in terms of what can we learn about the culture and politics and economics of food throughout Los Angeles. And how do we take those lessons and impart them to contemporary generations,” explained Kun.

Kun faces these issues head-on in the book and at the public exhibition at the Los Angeles Public Library central branch, using a number of menus and restaurants as touchstones. One key theme is the relationship between LA’s restaurants and race and ethnicity over time. Social shifts are easy to see when looking from one menu to another, starting with the earliest menus in the collection, which begins in 1875. These menus are largely from special occasion banquets, thrown by and for the crustiest of the upper crust, and represent a very specific type of demographic in terms of race and economy. As LA’s menu history grows and time passes, you can trace changes in the city’s population, along with its tensions and harmony.

There are many examples of this in the library’s collection and the book itself, and Kun points to one specific menu from the 1940s (pictured below) when explaining how dense menus can be with societal information. “Here you have a restaurant from the 1940s in South Los Angeles on Florence Avenue, a neighborhood that is in transition to becoming a predominantly African-American neighborhood. It was a barbecue restaurant that used a Mexican beer template for it’s menu. It’s during WWII with food rationing information, and the message ‘every defense stamp you buy pays the postage to send a Jap to hell.’ So here on one menu you have issues of Mexican immigration, African-American population changes in LA, anti-Japanese sentiment, economic rationing during WWII, all on one little menu. It was really interesting to me in terms of showing the scope of what a really simple menu can be, and how it can open up into these other worlds and ways of thinking.”

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As the city changed, the menus changed, and continue to change. You can see an influx of immigrants, a rise in working-class restaurants, an emphasis on local food, a reversal, and a reversal again. Hollywood restaurants catering to celebrities popped up, and the introduction of the automobile meant more drive-ins. LA evolved and evolved, and it’s spelled out through 15-cent lunches and pre-fixe dinners, diners and fine-dining establishments. “I don’t know of another city in the country that exists at the intersection of a former Mexican territory that grows into an American town through the mechanisms of Hollywood machinery. It’s the great promise of the west crystallized in one city,” explained Kun.

The book and the exhibition are pretty to look at, too. Especially fun is the novelty menu trend from the 1940s and ‘50s, which had restaurants creating menus in funny shapes, sizes, and materials. A chicken restaurant shaped their diminutive menu like a cartoon chicken, and printed the food items in tiny, tiny writing on the back. There’s a couple of menus printed on wood, and some paper versions in the shape of a buffalo, a salad, and a baseball. Some restaurants around this time made their menus into postcards, what Kun called the equivalent of “Instagramming your food.” Some menus look like pages from an elaborate picture book, others like pop art. Even the simplest menus are often a thing of beauty, with sophisticated fonts and blocks of color.

The exhibition shows them off the best way possible: by displaying them on tables and trays. The walls are lined with a collage of food and restaurant photographs, while the menus take center stage on a dining table with place settings, a pie case with slowly rotating displays, and a lazy susan. They’re right where they should be: at dining level. It’s not organized by date or by type of cuisine. Instead, it’s arranged much like the book: by idea. Kun and the library staff asked themselves a lot of questions while arranging the exhibition and building a whole program around To Live and Dine in LA. “How do we think about all of this food history and people going to a restaurant and being able to afford it at various levels? How do we think about it in a contemporary way since LA is one of the leading places for food insecurity? How do you talk about it in the context of a public library where, for thousands of people who come to the libraries every day, eating out is a complete privilege? And how do you do that in such a way that is not alienating, so that these are not texts showing what you’ve missed out on?”

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Los Angeles City Librarian John Szabo added, “To understand LA, this gateway, this international city—a great way is through food and through dining. It’s something that can bring LA together because everyone can relate.” You may not think of a library as a uniting force, but the Los Angeles Public Library is clearly passionate about bringing LA together in new ways. “When I think of the public library, we’re not just a book organization or an education and learning organization. We’re one of the few organizations that really does serve everyone, from the wealthy to the poor, those with homes and those without. We’re a trusted, valued organization in the community that people love, and we’re in every neighborhood. How can we leverage those relationships thoughtfully to address the biggest issues that our neighborhoods face?” asked Szabo. “Food deserts and food insecurity is definitely one of them.”

The book is just part of the equation for Kun, Szabo, and the rest of the Los Angeles Public Library and their efforts to highlight the collection, and, in doing so, highlight food issues in the city. The exhibition will be on display at the central branch of the library, free and open to the public. And over fifty programs will be offered this summer at branch libraries, including free talks with chefs and urban gardeners, teen cooking classes, and free lunches for kids. “I’m really thrilled the book and the exhibit are not cultural products that exist in isolation, but are part of a much larger initiative to both ask the right questions and bring things to the foreground, while actually taking steps to do something about it,” said Kun.

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Laurel Randolph is a food and lifestyle writer hailing from Tennessee and living in Los Angeles. She enjoys cooking, baking and candlestick making. Tweet at her face: @laurelrandy.