Origin and History of the Menu

In 1922, while excavating the Egyptian tomb of Setnakhte, the archaeologist Sir William Cristal found some unusual hieroglyphics which explained in detail the meal that was to be presented to celebrate the birth of the prince’s twin sons. The celebratory meal had several courses, from an opening barley soup to a main course of roast pig to a dessert of honey cakes and fresh dates. This list, dating back to the 2nd century BC, is the earliest known written menu.

Menus as guides for the kitchens of aristocratic households have been a fixture ever since, especially because many of these meals could have over a dozen courses, many of which would include many different items from which to sample. These menus were originally intended as a cooking guide for the kitchen staff.  After literacy became widespread, some of these menus would be given to the head of the house and his guests prior to a meal.

Bartolomeo Sacchi, a 15th century Florentine humanist philosopher, found the subject of how menus should be constructed to be an appropriate one for a philosopher to examine. His treatise is the first time that a distinction is made between light appetizers, soups, a main course and dessert.

These kinds of menus were not designed to give the diner any choice in what was served. For thousands of years, the only choice the diner had in his food was in choosing the food establishment. Once the hungry traveler or lodger had made his choice, each inn or tavern would serve him whatever they were serving that day.

After all, most meals were prepared at home. When travel was necessary, most people tried to stay at the houses of friends. This was literally a table d’hote, or table of the host. When this was not possible the wealthy often brought along their own servants and supplies. Others could obtain meals on the road at public eating houses, but those meals did not require menus, because all who ate there would receive the same basic meal and it was usually nothing to be anticipated eagerly.

Meals produced to order

The earliest paper restaurant menus can be found in city centers during the Chinese Song Dynasty, which lasted between 960 and 1279 AD. Because a limited local offering would not find favor among merchants who might have originated from any part of China, each of which had its own unique cuisine, local restaurants developed paper menus to show which non-local foods they served. The development and use of paper at this time was so prevalent that the Song Dynasty had also established the first paper banknotes in the world.

In the 18th century the chefs of a few prestigious French restaurants placed large posters outside the restaurant doors which showed the names and descriptions of the dishes which that restaurant could produce to order. These early menus were known as “escriteau.” Over time, they became artistic and very elaborate.

British tourists brought the custom back with them to London, where pubs soon started to use chalkboards for the same purpose. It was cheaper and easier to write up the day’s offerings on a chalkboard than to write it out on a large poster, and an offering could be crossed off after the pub had run out.

Individual menus

Individual menus were handed out for the first time in 19th century France, when European aristocracy started to dine out in French restaurants. By the 1920s, it had became a universal practice. This menu was called the “carte,” or map.

The earliest modern individual menus were printed out on single pages in the same style as newspaper pages, with densely spaced type. However, by the mid-1800s, the escriteau style had moved to individual menus, with several pages of selections printed onto multiple pages and bound together. Smaller food establishments retained a single sheet which was folded into halves or thirds, some with an extra interior sheet.

The most prestigious French restaurants soon started competing to make their menus as beautiful as possible. Some restaurants, such as Laperousse, embossed their menus with gold and silver. Others hired artists, such as Gauguin, Matisse, Renoir, or Toulouse-Lautrec, to illustrate their menus, usually in exchange for meals. The best artists never again paid for a restaurant meal.

The menus for most basic eateries were written in English. However, in upscale restaurants, French was the language of choice until well into the 20th century. Prices were not standard on menus until after the 1920s.

By the 1940s and 1950s, American restaurants were outsourcing their menu printing to specialized niche printers who could produce the wanted size of menu in full color and laminated. This was very expensive to print in short runs. However, only the prices of the meals usually varied, while the selections stayed the same. A cheap solution was to make a large menu printing run, consisting of everything but the prices. Those would be printed separately later in a black-only process, just before lamination. Each time the restaurant reordered, the printing company could pull out some of its menu shells, add the new prices, and laminate the small order.

Today, with modern technology, restaurant menus are stored as electronic files, which can be easily changed and printed on an as-needed basis. Some restaurants are experimenting with electronic menus and digital displays, some above the kitchen counter, others right at the table. Japanese and Korean restaurants have been using photographs of items successfully for some time.

However, with the current unstable economic conditions, many restaurants have reverted once again to the old chalkboard, which offers both nostaglia and practicality. Only time will tell what the menu will become in the future.

1. Menu
2. The Food Timeline: history notes–restaurants, chefs & foodservice

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