The Daily Heller: Mouthwatering Cartes de Menu

Posted inThe Daily Heller

What is more appetizing than a delicious meal prepared by a renowned chef? Depending on your age, maybe nothing. Depending on your profession, menu design holds a unique place in the ephemeral world. For once your food is consumed, it is gone (more or less) forever. What is left, beside the ubiquitous food selfie, is the printed menu (except in those restaurants that now use QR codes). Jim Heimann, creative director of Taschen USA and ephemera collector/author par excellence, has been acquiring the most visually fascinating and historically significant cartes de menu for decades. He has edited two extensive tomes: Menu Design in America (2018) and the recently released Menu Design in Europe (2022). They feature surprising offerings spanning over three centuries by unknown and anonymous designers and spécialités de la maison by famous artists, including David Hockney. I wrote the introduction to each volume. Both books are la grande bouffe for the eye, inspirations for the mind and feasts of design history. (And, my contributions are translated into German and French by real translators, not Google.)

As a prologue to the current edition, here is a brief excerpt from my introduction. Bon appetit:

Europe is the largest food court in the world, comprised of haute cuisines and common repasts, the wellspring of iconic chefs and cornucopia of gustatory delights. One might say that this great continent is an immense smorgasbord-cum-moveable feast, continuously changing its fare while remaining true to the historic, modern and basic national, regional, provincial and local dishes and culinary heritages that fuel its millions of inhabitants. Despite centuries of wartime devastation, repeated occupations, annexations and dislocations of land and people, European food culture has expanded and flourished throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. One reason is the continuous shift of displaced and replaced ethnic populations from around the globe; each of these continental migrations brings along and transforms or fuses venerable cooking traditions and customs into new gastronomic cultures.

Whether aristocrat or peasant, everyone has to eat. It is how each of their collective and respective foods are prepared and what ingredients are used that distinguishes one social culture or economic class from another. Certain dishes are too rich for some and too poor for others; sometimes the least-appetizing offerings are recombined into highly appealing fashions as tastes ebb and flow. For centuries preparation and consumption occurred mostly in the home—be it a palace or hut. Eventually public eateries were created for those who could afford to or had no other option than to eat out in what are now called restaurants, cafes, bistros, brasseries, inns and bars. The rise in travel during the 18th and 19th centuries by ship and train from country to country accounted for new eating habits, too. As these eating places evolved they were called by various names that suggest status and quality; whether intended for fine dining or for bare essentials depends on the quality and price of the fare being offered.

If you hunger for more on the origin and evolution of menus, just place your order here.

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