Menus That Made History

A new book explores wild and telling food choices from different times and cultures.

WORDS Eric Newill
November 2019
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Neanderthals enjoyed a diet of wooly rhinoceros and moss. Franklin D. Roosevelt served hot dogs on a silver tray to King George VI during the first “state picnic” in 1939. In 1970, Monty Python extolled the many glories of Spam. And, though Elvis and Priscilla Presley served lobster and a six-tier, $3,200 cake at their wedding breakfast in 1967, the only food this King really liked on the menu was ham and eggs.

These and other curious facts are the delicious raison d’être of Menus that Made History, a new book showcasing 75 wildly diverse bills of fare from history and culture. “We all love lists, and it occurred to me that menus are the ultimate lists,” says actor and author Vincent Franklin, who collaborated on the volume with Alex Johnson, creator of A Book of Book Lists. “If we are what we eat, then these lists of foods tell us an awful lot about us.”

A blend of scholarship and whimsy, the book spans such subjects as the first vegetarian restaurant (in Zürich in 1898), the final dinner served at Spain’s influential El Bulli in 2011 (the “dry martini” was an orb of reconstituted olive juice placed on the tongue and sprayed with gin and vermouth), and even Roman Emperor Vitellius’ flamingo tongues and peacock brains. 

“The key thing is, we wanted it to be authoritative and a book people could rely on, but also include facts that you could amaze your friends with,” says Johnson. One of his favorite sections describes the lavish 1971 feast the Shah of Iran threw to celebrate 2,500 years of the Persian Empire. Though ostensibly a tribute to his country, the Shah flew in 18 tons of food from Maxim’s in Paris, as well as 15,000 trees and 50,000 songbirds to approximate a sylvan glade for his 500 guests. Such ostentation was condemned by his opposers, and many see this display as one of the factors that led to his overthrow eight years later. The book also incorporates recipes for specific dishes from some of the menus. The home chef can re-create a spicy stew presented at King Midas’ funeral around 700 B.C.—featuring lamb marinated in honey and olive oil, grilled and served with lentils, star anise and fennel—or perhaps the corn bread offered at the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621. “The publisher was very keen on making it more interactive,” Franklin says. “It adds an extra dimension to the book, and allows more people to enjoy it.”

Ultimately the book is about people and events rather than merely food. “There isn’t a culture in the world that doesn’t have at its heart people getting together and breaking bread,” Franklin says. “You may not have had the same wedding breakfast as Elvis, but you will be able to read these menus and remember the way you experienced similar events.”

Franklin and Johnson wrap up their book with a “menu of the future” devised by IKEA’s innovation laboratory, Space10, incorporating a mealworm “bug burger” and a microgreen ice cream derived from fennel and coriander. “This menu may be extreme,” says Franklin, “but some of its ideas reflect the way we’ll all be eating in a few years’ time.”

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