Thursday February 04, 2016

U of T acquires collection of 10,000 Chinese restaurant menus

A selection of Chinese restaurant menus taken from a collection of 10,000, that was recently acquired by the University of Toronto.

A selection of Chinese restaurant menus taken from a collection of 10,000, that was recently acquired by the University of Toronto. (Ken Jones/University of Toronto Scarborough)

Listen 6:34

You likely have a couple of them lying around your house. But, you probably didn't realize that those take-out menus might have value — both monetary and historical.      

The University of Toronto recently acquired a collection of approximately 10,000 Chinese restaurant menus. The collection, squirrelled away by archivist Harley Spiller, has been recognized by Guinness World Records as the largest in the world.

chinese menu archive

(Ken Jones/University of Toronto Scarborough)


"[Harley] was living alone in New York City," Daniel Bender tells As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. "He started collecting the menus pushed under his door and then it became a passion and really almost a profession for him."

Bender is a history professor and director of the Culinaria Research Centre at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus. He is part of a team faced with the daunting task of sorting, preserving and digitizing the mammoth collection.

Daniel Bender

Daniel Bender is a history professor and Director of the Culinaria Research Centre at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus. ( Rick Halpern)


"Wow! It's a big stack of boxes right now," Bender explains. "That's the hard work that the library is doing in just getting these ready for use by scholars and really by the public."

The collection extends beyond menus. It includes other items such as oversized chopsticks, a variety of ceramics and even a few stale fortune cookies. But Bender says the most prized items are menus that are time-stamped with a stain — the residue of a family secret sauce or condiment.

chinese menu archive

(Ken Jones/University of Toronto Scarborough)


"It really turns a piece of paper just into a fantastic artifact," Bender explains.  "It really shows that a menu is not just a list of something for sale. It's something that gets passed back and forth from waiter to customer, from customer back to the waiter, back to the cook, to the owner — it's the evidence of a relationship, of a conversation."
chinese menu archive

(Ken Jones/University of Toronto Scarborough)


Bender says the collection provides snapshots of who might have been going into the various restaurants, why certain dishes were on the menu and how that reflects the evolution of the cuisine.

"Really this collection is a Rosetta stone because of its sheer breadth," Bender explains."Suddenly we see all the restaurants around us as not just solitary businesses but part of a great cultural tradition with a very long and important creative contribution."

chinese restaurant archive

(Ken Jones/University of Toronto Scarborough)


Bender says the menus track the fusion of Asian and North American food and suggests they provide a record of how Canadians have come to define their cuisine.

chinese menu archive

(Ken Jones/University of Toronto Scarborough)

After the collection is fully processed, Bender says it will become available online and hopefully displayed as a public exhibition on campus.