Food Geek: Old and New

It's no secret that I have a small obsession with food.  This is not limited to trying out amazing restaurants or cooking new recipes;  my interest is also academic, and is one that I hope to pursue in the form of a PhD someday.  One of the things I am fascinated by is menus, both in restaurants and for home dining, throughout history.  Old menus demonstrate which types of foods are eaten, by whom are these meals eaten, and how this impacts future food preferences.  For example, in the 1900s, it was the norm to eat the entire animal;  a current trend that has resurfaced only a few times since then. (L and I are suckers for offal on a menu, and happily dig into guranciale - pig face, essentially).  This is part of the renaissance of sustainability in cooking.  Because of my class and how I was brought up and where I live now, I am brave enough to try things that might sound crazy on a menu.  If one is not familiar or exposed to these dishes - and I certainly wasn't growing up, then that could sound a little bizarre.  But I also grew up trying new things as they became available to me - I don't think I ate sushi until I was at least in my early twenties.  This is the other part of how people eat that fascinates me. For example, my grandmother was born in 1936, and lived through World War II, when people were more frugal with their cooking, and combined with a German/Polish heritage, she tends to eat things like dumplings and a stew that combines a number of everyday ingredients. The dishes she is known for tend to be heavier and made from easily attainable ingredients.  Okay, she sort of eats like this - now she mostly subsides off of dessert and noodles, but that is another story for another day.  Basically food tells stories of history, class, interests, and of social, cultural and agricultural trends in a way that nearly nothing else can - as everyone needs to eat.

This brings me to my new obsession.  The New York Public Library has an extensive collection of menus, dating back to the 1900s.  They are looking for people to help them transcribe these historic menus as sort of an experiment online, and to cut down on the vast amount of people-hours this would take their staff.  This project, called What's on the Menu allows anyone to jump online and transcribe 100-year old menus. It's so fun to see which items are showing up on menus today, and which items have quietly gone away.

In contrast to the old food, L and I ate at Minibar last week, and all I can say is it was a joyous meal.  The creativity behind each dish was so much fun.  Minibar is a restaurant within a restaurant (it hosts 6 people for two seatings a night, 5 days a week).  Known for being next to impossible to get reservations - you must call at 10 am exactly a month before you want to eat there, and then you might still not get to be part of the 12 for that day - the wait is fully worth it. Minibar's chefs play with temperature and expectations throughout the meal.  For example, an "egg with migas" is recreated - the egg white is runny, instead of the yolk, and also made of Parmesan. A pisco sour is hot on top, and ice cold on the bottom, in the same glass. Beans are pureed and recreated to form a new shape, but powerful flavors in a new rendition of a Spanish seafood dish. Check out these photos - this is not all of the dishes (of which there were 27) - I was distracted by delicious.