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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

menus, cartes, and where we are

In the OED, the first meaning of menu is – the common people. Sons of the menu seems to have been a seventeenth century phrase. The second meaning, a schedule or list, takes its first instance of menu in English from a book, in 1830, that refers to French cooking.

In his essay on Grimod de la Reynier’s Almanach in Consuming Culture, the arts of the French Table, Michael Garval (whose homepage links to a “menu of the month” ) describes the frontispiece, which presented a little semi-humorous cartoon of the gourmand, with the bibliotheque of the 19th gourmand (bookshelves overflowing with provisions), his meditations, the first duty of an Amphitrion “with the master of the house, in the kitchen, receiving a menu from his chef,” his dreams, his awakening, and then “le plus mortel ennemi du diner”, in “which the gourmand spoils his appetite by indulging in an overly copious lunch.” I am probably not the first person to see this as a parody of Descartes in the Discours, right? So I won’t flog the comparison. What is interesting, instead, is the appearance of this menu in the household. The civilizing process, man. From the aristocrat’s schedule to the bourgeois’s grand palaces of gourmandise to the driveby ‘can I take your order’, something is happening here. But do we know what it is?

Of course, it is menu in English, but carte gastronomique in the early nineteenth century. A carte is a map, which implies a referent in which one orients oneself – a space. But what kind of space is this – the space of cuisine?

Well, I could take a leap here into Kant’s essay on orientation, which is actually a pretty good intro to the always fascinating topic of left and right and might give us some anchors for the ur-text of preferences (remember, of course, that while menus and restaurants are appearing in Paris, Bentham is dividing the moral world into pleasures and pains, a binary over which one can calculate – in fact, LI, at this moment, has half a mind to claim an intimate connection between the origin of the political economic text, constitutions and menus – text types bound together in this moment, a disguised relationship that seems to have attracted few critics – yes, many are the ties that bind the U.S. Constitution to the menu at the Taco place up the street, and a true American deconstructor, or simply your average KritikDJ, would set about mixing one with the other, scratch scratch) but let’s stick, for a moment, with Grimod.

Ah, let's do that in our next post.

1 comment:

vero said...


I came to your blog while searching about Menu history. I am really interested. Have you been doing more search since 2006?

Great stuff that you write.