Learn About the History of Los Angeles Through Its Menus

Contributor
LA has gotten a lot of attention in the past few years for its famous food trucks, but its rich culinary history goes way back

Los Angeles Public Library Special Collections

This old cocktail menu is one of the many available for viewing at the Central Library.

On Saturday, June 13, the Library Foundation of Los Angeles will showcase a large selection of menus from Los Angeles Public Library’s vast collection of 9,000 historic menus, some of which date back to the nineteenth century, in an exhibition titled “To Live and Dine in LA.” The collection will be on display at the Central Library until November 13 of this year.

The brains behind this project include USC Annenberg professor Josh Kun, who has been working on this project for the past year, and acclaimed chef and “LA Son” Roy Choi. In the introduction to the exhibit’s eponymous book, Choi writes, “The more I looked at the menus, the more they told me about how neighborhoods developed.… Were these menus for the affluent and middle class? Were the working classes even eating with menus, or were they mostly eating at stands and carts? Were there disparities and access problems just like today?”

You’d be surprised how much you can learn about economics, culture, race, linguistics, politics, and class by reading about the meals Angelinos ordered for themselves. For example, drive-in restaurants were called “drive-inns” in the 1940s. Why? The exhibit’s curators suppose it has something to do with the heavy food offered, like bacon-stripped Welsh rarebit and steak plates, which might make one need to take a nap at the steering wheel before driving again. It is the proto-In-N-Out Burger — except a meal back then cost about 30 cents, about 20 percent of the cost of an In-N-Out burger today.

In a city so diverse and multifaceted, these menus offer a biography of the city that you won’t find in books or movies. If you find yourself in Los Angeles in the next few months, make sure to round off your delicious vacation with some history. 

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