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Menu Design in Europe

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A 1936 ‘diner de gala’ on board the Motorliner Kungsholm, a ship of the Swedish American Line, is one of the most joyous menus, with an outdoorsy looking young woman astride a leaping fish, and a man lounging under a palm tree on the horizon, all conjured up in a deceptively simple arrangement of areas of flat colour. The 1891 menu from Paris’s Le Grand Vefour, with its intricate die-cut design, evokes a bustling Belle Epoque bistro, while the 1932 menu from London’s Royal Palace Hotel transports you to the bar at a spirited, Jazz Age nightspot. The only really helpful menu illustrations are colour photographs of the real food but these, especially when laminated for easy wiping, are generally considered déclassé.

Ciro’s, a Parisian restaurant popular in the 1920s, favoured bewilderingly horrible pictures of fat toddlers, one biting another’s behind and another washing his bottom over a street drain watched by a stray dog, over the caption ‘La seule utilité de l’eau’. Politics rarely features so directly in the menus, but food is always revealing of broader cultural attitudes and their occasionally dramatic shifts. A long menu may be high class, as at La Tour d’Argent, where it is the product of a kitchen full of expert chefs and fresh ingredients. Heimann’s menus illustrate both extremes and with the dawn of the 20th century they move beyond banqueting halls and restaurants to include the bills of fare from liners, trains and, in their early and glamorous days, airlines. A very few of the menus depict certain symbols, and represent human beings in ways, which have since been recognized to be shameful.The practice of serving a succession of courses was gradually coming in during the period of the diary, but was only adopted in the Pepys household for grand occasions. There are of course two kinds of menu, though Heimann makes no distinction between them: the restaurant or hotel menu that offers you a choice of meal for which you pay, and the set menu for a formal meal that announces like a theatre programme what you will be given. Neuware -Jim Heimanns neues Buch Menu Design In Europe ist ein genussvoller Augenschmaus mit hunderten europäischen Speisekarten aus der Zeit vom frühen 19. One’s heart goes out to the organisers of a dinner in Leeds on behalf of the trade body of funeral directors in December 1919 to celebrate the end of the Great War. Admiring them for their detail and how they managed to survive the war, Jim also notes their satire, which makes them “highly unusual”.

Art Deco, with its flat planes and sharp lines and shadows, suited all graphics; it was a great age for posters and advertising art generally and it adapted itself to elegance as well as exuberance. Food is presented variously over the years as status, as style, as fun, as sex and seduction, and, occasionally, as necessary to sustain life. The book's coverage is deepest and most interesting from the 1920s to through the 1960s, and French menus are represented most strongly. The later menus show British food improving as design generally declines in both quantity and quality. Es sind verschiedene Stildekaden vertreten - von Jugendstil- und Art-déco-Meisterwerken bis hin zu den grafischen Aneignungen der DDR.Jim Heimann’s new book on Menu Design in Europe is a mouthwatering feast for the eyes, featuring hundreds of European menus from the early 19th century to the end of the millennium. The meals themselves and their relative importance in the pattern of the day also shifted over time. Skipping forward to the present day, physical menus are competing with soulless lists of food on Deliveroo and the increasing use of QR codes. A later attempt by the Trocadero Grill Room in London in 1937 to imitate the success of afternoon tea with its own innovation of late dinner – to be known as ‘dinuit’ – did not catch on.

The Red Cross parcel shares the page with the menu for a feast given the following year at Santa Maria de Montserrat for General Franco to mark the second anniversary of his ‘liberation’ of Spain.Starting with the 19th century, the book offers up some early examples of menu design, just as the very idea of a restaurant menu was beginning to grow in popularity across the continent. It can be a faux pas to use cutlery at all if eating a burger; asking for a knife and fork in a Chinese restaurant can elicit a withering stare; and during the gastropub craze for serving food on boards, slates or anything except an actual plate, the smooth transfer of food to mouth required concentration. Illustrations include a blushing Susanna and the Elders, in which Susanna’s crossed legs and downcast gaze suggest that the elders are not the only cause of her discomfort; a mannequin pis whose urine stream can hit a distant umbrella in the admiring crowd; and, most worryingly, a naked woman sobbing on her knees in front of an elderly gent proffering a phial of the miraculous cure. Despite all the claims of body positivity and female empowerment in recent years, is the ad industry more prudish than it lets on?

The second-class traveller on the Lusitania in 1913 was offered a lunch menu of simple fare clearly considered suitable for the less sophisticated palette of what was assumed to be a monoglot traveller.Featuring an essay by graphic design historian Steven Heller and captions by leading ephemerist and antiquarian book dealer Marc Selvaggio, Menu Design In Europe features menus from leading collectors and institutions, providing a sumptuous visual banquet and historical document of two centuries of culinary traditions. Rosemary Hill refers to the gradual disappearance in the 19th century of ‘French service’ – all dishes set on the table at once – and its replacement by the serving of courses in stages, or ‘Russian service’ ( LRB, 17 November).

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