After spending an hour or so at the Main Library earlier this week, poring over the menus on display at San Francisco Eats, I spoke to curator Sheila Himmel about the exhibit, which will be up until March. Himmel was a longtime restaurant critic for San Jose Mercury News, and now reviews restaurants for newspapers in Palo Alto and Mountain View. She is also the author of Hungry: A Mother and Daughter Fight Anorexia, which came out last year.
SFoodie: How did San Francisco Eats come about?
Himmel: Lisa Vestal, chief curator at the San Francisco Public Library, applied for a grant from the Friends of the Library to mount it. She and Susan Goldstein, the city archivist, were talking about this collection of menus that no one had ever organized and hardly anyone had ever seen. They had 400 menus to start with, as well as boxes of ephemera ― matchbooks, salt-and-pepper shakers, commemorative stuff ― carefully wrapped in paper.
So the point was to get this stuff out there so the public could see it, and anyone who wants to can go to the History Center (on the sixth floor of the Main branch) and ask to see more. What's on display is a good fraction of what the library has, but there's still a lot of good stuff.
Since the exhibit opened on Saturday, in fact, the library has gotten a lot of calls from people who are interested in sharing their own collections. So the restaurant collection will build from here.
How long has it taken you to organize the exhibit?
Well, I started in May 2009, though it wasn't a full-time job. The menus were stored in vertical files, mostly in alphabetical order, so I just started going through them. I also worked with Christina Moretta, the photograph curator. She looked through the catalog of the library's collections to find possible photos for us to look at.
My main question, looking through these menus, was that we take it for granted that San Francisco is a food town, but why? What were the elements that have made that true through the war, and the Depression, and several earthquakes?
It was fun, depending on your age, to look back what the menus and see how things have changed. I just love menus anyway ― they're great touchstones for where the culture is at any given time.
The thing that shocked me was to find out how important a role Dalmatian and Istrian cuisine played in San Francisco. The exhibit says the city has had more than 1,500 Istrian-Dalmatian restaurants, most dating back to the 19th century. I'd heard of Cafe Albona, but I thought that was an anomaly.
Oh, no. Tadich Grill, too, is Yugoslavian. On the opening night panel, Patty Unterman said this interesting thing: Many years ago, she took a trip to Yugoslavia and saw the cooking of fish on coals with a little herbs. That sight, and the fish at Tadich's, was the inspiration for Hayes Street Grill.
What was your favorite discovery?
I love the case in the upstairs gallery showing off how San Francisco restaurants have used sex to sell food. Bare-breasted women have been popular from time memorial!
What got left out?
The History Center in the library has a great collection of historical cookbooks and guidebooks. The guidebooks didn't get in but they were a really fun thing to discover. And the service clubs all had their own cookbooks ― there was one from the Alcatraz Women's Auxiliary, for example.
I also had organized a section on vegetarian, vegan, and health food. We had some menus from the 1970s in which every dish had sprouts. But we didn't have room for everything, and had to chose between dessert and health. Naturally, we chose dessert.