By: Michael Robinson Staff Reporter, Published on Tue Feb 02 2016 in The Toronto Star
Get ready to pass the soy sauce.
The University of Toronto Scarborough has ordered up a banquet of 10,000 Chinese restaurant menus and relevant tchotchkes.
The mother lode of menus was purchased for about $40,000 from Harley Spiller, a world-famous U.S. collector. Spiller said that while he didn’t invent the art of collecting menus, he has taken “it to a level few have gone before.”
Guinness World Records recognized the international collection in 2005 as the largest of its kind.
The collection offers foodie academics the chance to imaginatively step into kitchens as far back as a century ago to explore the history and taste of Chinese food as it was adapted to local tastes in North America and around the world.
“You can’t put a meal into a museum, so how do you remember it?” said Daniel Bender, a UTSC history professor. “One of the great ways of preserving that moment is saving the menu.”
Bender, who is also the director of UTSC Culinaria Research Centre, said the menus will be of particular interest to food studies scholars. He expects one of the first steps will be to map the restaurant locations to track the development of Chinese food culture in North America.
Today’s archival technology will not only produce higher-quality scans of the menu’s artwork, but also make it easier for researchers to search for specific documents and trends. The ultimate goal, Bender added, is for the collection to become publicly accessible.
“I tend to think of restaurants as a source of work and economic livelihood, but they are also a source where people’s creativity meets their cultural traditions,” he said. “The reality is that there are more Chinese restaurants in the world than there are fast-food restaurants.
“It’s a culture that has presented itself to the wider world.”
Nicknamed the “Inspector Collector,” Harley Spiller told the Star he had endured “mixed emotions” after parting ways with the anthology four decades in the making.
“I’m thrilled (the collection) has such energetic and capable new owners, but it is sad to lose them,” the 56-year-old said. “But UTSC is keeping me in the picture, and that is terrific.”
The collection was transported in more than 50 boxes weighing more than 500 kilograms altogether. Three-quarters of that was the Chinese menus alone.
The rest of the lot included photographs and artifacts such as fortune cookies, takeout boxes, mugs and a pair of eight-foot chopsticks.
Although the purchase took place in 2014, the university decided there was no better time to celebrate the acquisition than alongside the upcoming Chinese New Year.
Spiller is no stranger to the idea of amassing extensive inventories of random things. Aside from the menus, he also maintains a stockpile of autographs, photographs, neckties and spoons.
But despite his vast experience tracking down relics of the past, he still regrets not finding the one menu he might treasure the most.
The man of many menus was visiting Toronto in the mid-1960s when he grabbed dinner at a restaurant named Ports of Call. He recalled the beef skewer served there as “as sweet and gooey, and unlike any steak I’ve ever had.”
While Spiller was never able to find the long-lost menu, he hopes Toronto’s newest culinary collection may lead to its discovery.
“I’d love to see it again,” he said.
Rick Halpern, a UTSC history professor and former dean, said each dish listed in the menus tells its own story.
“Some of the early menus in the collection show us a glimpse of what will become Canadian and American-style Chinese food,” he said.
Traditional dishes began to take on a North American life of their own after Cantonese migrants began arriving on the west coast of Canada and the U.S. in the late 19th century, many of them coming as labourers building the transcontinental railways.
Some stayed on, spreading across the country and opening Chinese cafes in towns big and small, adapting their cooking to the ingredients available and the tastes of local diners.
According to Halpern, restaurants offering authentic regional delicacies, such as those from Sichuan and Xinjiang, would begin to pop up only as Chinese began immigrating in larger numbers to Canada in the 1980s.
Ahead of the upcoming Chinese New Year, University of Toronto Scarborough showed off its new $40,000 purchase of the world’s largest Chinese restaurant menu collection. Approximately 10,000 menus, photographs and artifacts now call Toronto home.
The Star spoke with university curators, chief librarian Victoria Owen and archivist Amanda Tomé, who highlighted some of the more unique exhibits and explained how menus of the past reveal much more than low prices.
Dated 1896, the oldest bill of fare in the collection is believed to have been used at a luncheon honouring Chinese politician Li Hongzhang. Taking a look at the fine selection of rice, tea and chop suey, it’s clear the party was off the hook.
Researchers say the rare menu illustrates the careful and custom use of calligraphy characteristic of early iterations of Chinese menus. The text is a mix of English words written in a style reminiscent of Cantonese.
Location: Portland, Ore.
Menus belonging to the old-school Chinese eateries of the booming ’50s are best known for colourful artwork printed on thick card stock.
Restaurants tried various ways of appealing to North American patrons. This U.S. restaurant, for example, set Chinese characters against the backdrop of an Oregon mountain range and Western-style detached homes
New Asian Café
Location: Seattle, Washington
There is probably a wide selection of soups, appetizers and main dishes on this mid-century menu. But unless you can read traditional Cantonese, good luck with your order. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 1980s that menu design and language began to fully embrace American taste buds.
Gourmet House of Hong Kong
Location: Phoenix, Ariz.
The late 20th century was the period when Chinese restaurant menus finally went mainstream. Rocking a tri-fold layout allowed restaurant owners to cram more bilingual menu items onto a single piece of paper.
The popular design choice continues to be used by establishments today, unlike the French rolls on the bottom of your splatter-painted jeans.
Location: United States
Here’s a chance to play with your food. Roughly one-quarter of the new collection involves artifacts other than menus, including decorative trinkets and toys.
This miniature “pet wok” is a round-bottomed toy cooking tool that is basically the Chinese equivalent of an Easy-Bake Oven. There are at least four other types of Chinese-based food games in the collection.
Year: Early 2000s
Location: Amherst, Mass.
Believe it or not, there was a time when menus were printed only in black and white. The next-generation menu upgrade of the early 2000s took advantage of spot colour to really make the noodle illustrations stand out.
And for patrons increasingly wary of decadent dishes heavy in sugar, salt and starch, some Chinese restaurants began to offer “health food” selections catering to diet-conscious palates.