STYLE

Chef Roy Choi sees the story of Los Angeles, and his own, through the city's many menus

06/15/2015 04:50 EDT | Updated 06/15/2016 05:59 EDT
LOS ANGELES, Calif. - In the worn Los Angeles menus of the late 1800s, chef Roy Choi saw a glimpse of his own story.

The Hotel Arcadia offered apple pie and braised beef au madre. Diners at The Angelus in modern-day downtown got to feast on Welsh rabbit and mashed potatoes. Don Mateo Keller's Vintage Feast and Ball served French chicken blanquette.

They were menus with one foot in Europe, the other in a still-to-be-defined America. LA's early restaurants seemed to be trying to hold on to something they left behind — a sentiment the Korean-American Choi could relate to. "It was almost like an immigrant kid trying to figure out, 'What does it mean to be Korean?'" Choi said in a recent interview.

Choi, author Josh Kun and Los Angeles librarians have spent the last year sorting through thousands of restaurant menus that tell a history of Los Angeles through its food. The Library Foundation of Los Angeles is presenting an exhibit of the menus running from June through November 13th and publishing a related book, "To Live and Dine in LA." Events on food history, cooking and nutrition will be held at libraries around the city.

Kun said he wanted to deconstruct menus, "like a short story or poem."

"These are what I call urban texts," he said, beside a table filled with menus from the past.

Two Los Angeles Public Library librarians began collecting the menus in the 1980s. Over the last three decades, they amassed more than 8,000. Today the library is in possession of about 15,000 menus, the oldest dating back to 1875. "These collections tell the story of Los Angeles," said city librarian John Szabo.

Some of the earliest menus were for banquets, a hint of the times; dining out was, at first, a privilege for the wealthy. One of the banquet menus on display is for a dinner honouring "Professor and Mrs. Albert Einstein" at the Hotel Ambassador in 1931. On the cover of the yellow-tinged menu is a black and white portrait of the physicist and his wife, she smiling glibly and he ever straight-faced and with a bushel of grey hair. The dinner that evening featured "Fresh Fruit Supreme California," ''Half Spring Chicken Saute Ambassador" and "Fancy Form Ice Cream."

When Kun showed Choi those early menus, it provoked a question: If banquets were where the rich ate, where did the poor and working class eat?

Digging deeper, Kun uncovered another history — lunchrooms that popped up around the same time offering workers a quick bite for 15 cents or less.

"A lot of times what we eat doesn't involve a menu," Choi said. "Or if there is, it's written on paper and then gone."

Questions of food security and the relationship between food, class and culture run throughout the exhibit. While today Los Angeles is considered a destination city for both fine dining and cheap eats across an immense array of cuisines, it is also a city where many still go hungry. More than half of all students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest, qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a key indicator of poverty.

Looking at the old menus, Choi said it wasn't hard to draw comparison between the past and today.

"I felt the energy of the people and not so much just what I was looking at," Choi said. "Just those lonely moments in an office or at a table, when a guy or girl first wrote that menu: What were they thinking? The dreams in their head, what they ran away from, what they were proud of, what they were possessed by. As a person who writes menus, I felt connected to those moments."

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