For the project "To Live and Dine in L.A.," Josh Kun combed through the Los Angeles Public Library's collection of 9,000 menus dating back to 1875. The resulting book and exhibit show the transformation of the city's restaurant culture. Kun is an associate professor of communication at the University of Southern California.
Noelle Carter: People think of California as an agricultural paradise. We talk about California cuisine and the farm-to-table movement, as well as an emphasis on fresh and seasonal produce. But your research illustrates that this isn't true, just looking at menus from the early 1900s.
Josh Kun: What we've found was that you have these two periods of agricultural consciousness.
In the early history of Los Angeles in the 1800s and early 1900s, LA was a small farm capital. We're a city that grew out of the old ranch system, the rancho system. There was wheat, there were pastures for cows, for chickens, for eggs, fishing off the coasts. It was a place where local agriculture ruled the city. The city actually grew very much as a wine city. Gritty, urban, gray, downtown Los Angeles in the late 1800s was a vintner's paradise -- that's why we still have grapes in the city's crest. You see that on menus. You see restaurants bragging about the fact that their chicken comes from the restaurant's own farm, fresh daily, that kind of a thing. There is this agricultural pre-history that starts to go away mid-century.
Now once we're entering in the 1980s into the contemporary moment of the so-called farm-to-table scene, you have this return to the small farm consciousness, to wanting to say, "Everything on our menu comes from just down the street." That's a return to the pre-industrial food days of the early 1900s.
NC: Funny how things just come back around.
JK: Yes, they do.
NC: 1965 is a pivotal year for Los Angeles; you have the Watts uprising, the wave of immigrants due to the Hart-Celler immigration act and the regionalization of the food scene. We no longer have just Chinese food, but it's Cantonese food, Sichuan or Mandarin food.
JK: If you look at the history of Los Angeles and waves of immigration patterns, 1965 was a major year in terms of immigration, a lessening of restrictions. You had a new wave of Thai immigrants, Indonesian immigrants, Cambodian immigrants, new waves of Mexican immigrants. Really that's when you start to see regional -- it's not just Cantonese, it's Mandarin, it's Sichuan, or it's not Mexican, it's Sonoran, it's Oaxacan.
Now it is very hard to even find restaurants in Los Angeles that would proudly say, "We are a Chinese restaurant, or we are a Mexican restaurant." The first thing that most diners now would say is, "From where, what region, what kind of Chinese food, what kind of Mexican food?"
NC: When you think of Los Angeles, you think of it as an automobile city. It seems like we can't walk anywhere. We do everything in cars -- or we try to when there's not too much traffic. I love how you talk about the importance of Wilshire Boulevard as automobiles came to dominate and shape the sprawling city.
JK: Wilshire is such an interesting street for the history of Los Angeles. Doug Suisman, who wrote this fantastic book called Los Angeles Boulevard, really pinpoints Wilshire as this transitional street that takes Los Angeles from being what he calls a central city to being a linear city.
Wilshire originally was meant to be mostly residential. But with the rise of the automobile, it starts to become a commercial district. By the late '20s and early 1930s, lo and behold more people are driving, people want to eat, they want to drive out to eat. Then they eventually want to drive out to eat in order to eat in their car. It gave birth to carhop culture, drive-in culture and the very idea of mid-century architecture that is meant to capture the eye of the driver driving up and down the street. This really takes off with Wilshire in the 1930s. It was a really, really important street for the transformation of LA's restaurant culture.
NC: Can you talk a little bit about how our tastes have changed over the years? You talk about how basil first starts showing up on menus in the late 1970s, about the same time as mentions of aspic start to taper off.
JK: It's really a one-to-one ratio, aspic and basil, over the years -- switch them in and out.
In order to prepare for today, I came up with a list of some ingredients that I thought would be fun to hear that I think have gone away. Maybe some are coming back now, but I do think they reflect the changing tastes that we see on LA restaurant menus.
On a lot of early menus you see stuff like lamb kidneys, which maybe are back in some ways, and a lot of mutton. So much so that many restaurants served not just mutton, but a saddle of mutton, which I'm just trying to visualize. I don't know if anyone wants to be around a saddle of mutton, but that's OK. Curried pigs' feet were very popular in the late 1800s, jellied consommes and frikadellen.
NC: I don't think I know what that is.
JK: I had to look it up. It's like little meat pies -- almost like flattened meatballs with leftover meat.
Monk's beard salad, Toke Point oysters and roast squab.
One that I loved is the way that chicken would be talked about. In most of the 1930s and '40s, chicken restaurants would talk about chicken as being disjointed chicken, which I assume to mean chicken pulled apart.
NC: With the whole nose-to-tail movement, we're starting to see a lot of interesting cuts come back. But maybe thankfully some of them have gone away for good.
After doing this project, has this changed the way that you look at a menu now when you go to a restaurant?
JK: Completely. It's ruined it.
To be really honest, before I didn't really think that much about menus. They were just the things that I read to get to the food. And now I really do more and more approach it like -- I feel like I go into a restaurant and become a literary critic or something. That I put on my post-structuralist deconstructionist hat and I want to look at that font, look at how many commas are there. I'm noticing the adjectives and I'm noticing content before I'm even thinking about what I want to order.
For better or worse, Noelle, be careful what you spend your life doing.