Object Matters An itemized history of the menu.

Object Matters An itemized history of the menu.

  • Words Ed Cumming
  • Photograph Studio Ingrid Picanyol

The story of the menu is entwined with the history of commerce and personal liberty. For most of time, imaginative cooking was something the rich did at home—or, more likely, had done for them. The poor ate what they could get. Inns offered no choice: You ate whatever they had to offer on the day. After hours of traveling by horse or on foot, chances were you were too tired to be fussy anyway. The first inns to offer written options appeared in China around 1100. One example from Hangzhou lists more than 600 dishes. Table service emerged during the same period. Although we get the word menu from the French, meaning something small or detailed, they did not appear in France until the late 18th century, after which the practice of providing guests with a bill of fare spread slowly acros...

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