In search of the elusive Nesselrode Pudding, or, menu digitization rocks!

How much do I love the New York Public Library's What's on the Menu? project? Inordinately, that's how much. They're dealing with a fairly common problem among libraries with digitization projects: a big collection of image files of interesting documents; the need to capture the text from those documents into a usable, searchable form; the impossibility of just OCR-ing it all; and the immensity of the work of transcription. So they built a transcription program with a super-simple front end, and invited the world to help them transcribe the collection. (See also the Transcribe Bentham project, and Project Gutenberg's Distributed Proofreaders initiative.)

The result is surprisingly addictive: you pick a historic menu from their constantly-updating list, start clicking on the names of dishes and typing transcriptions into the little box, and before long you're thinking "Hey, I should go back and look at all those descriptions of restaurant meals in The House of Mirth and figure out how pricey they actually would have been for someone in Lily Bart's financial straits." And then you marvel at the fact that travelers on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1901 could order a caviar sandwich in the cafe car.* And then you start surfing the still-growing database of dishes from the menus and wondering when, exactly, broiled plover on toast went out of style.

Which brings me to the other thing I love about this project: food history is the coolest thing ever, and I'm adding "food historian" to the list of things I would do if I had whole other lifetimes to do them in. And I also love how, when you look at the pages for individual dishes, you're presented with links out to recipe search sites, book search sites, Wikipedia, and even Flickr and Twitter. The NYPL folks evidently realized that this project could appeal to lots of people: food historians, fans of retro cookery (Gallery of Regrettable Food,** anyone?), random passersby curious about what Nesselrode Pudding was,*** home cooks who might be inspired to replicate some of the dishes on the menu.

It's a really lovely instance of making primary sources accessible to an audience that's both academic and non-; it's also a lovely example of simultaneously opening up library collections to a wider audience and involving that audience in improving the collections. As a librarian and an alt-academic (and as a foodie), I approve. And I'm looking forward to seeing what people do with the data.



* I confess that, however much of a delicacy they were considered at the time, the idea of caviar sandwiches makes me gag a bit. Which is another thing I love (well, not the gagging): the glimpses these menus offer into one area of the past that looks, in some ways, like the present, and in other ways, like those caviar sandwiches and plovers on toast, notably different.

** If you haven't yet discovered the Gallery of Regrettable Food, go now. Just be aware that it'll probably make you laugh until your ribs hurt.

*** Apparently it's a molded chestnut ice cream. I kind of want to try my hand at making it now.

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