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What's On The Menu? 

History a la carte

This week, Creative Loafing includes its annual Menu Guide, a handy pullout with menus from area restaurants. Today's menus can run the gamut from leather-bound, embossed tomes to throwaway photocopied sheets. But what was the very first menu like?

In 1922, archaeologist Sir William Cristal discovered the earliest known menu while excavating the pyramid containing the tomb of a then-unidentified Egyptian prince. The menu was carved in hieroglyphics on stone tablets, and it was for a meal that celebrated the birth of the prince's twin sons, one of whom later became the powerful and famous Pharaoh Ramses III. The menu consisted of garlic in sour cream, barley soup, salmon, roast pig, and goat's cheese, followed by honey cakes, fresh dates and pomegranates.

This menu was not given to the guests at the dinner, but was a working list for the kitchen staff -- it probably would have been tough for the hostess to tote around stone tablets for a table of eight. Until the 19th century, most menus were merely instructions on what dishes to prepare and in what order they should be served.

By the middle of the 17th century, waiters in better French, English and Italian inns would memorize the evening's bill of fare and recite it to the waiting diners. But there was no choice involved -- everyone ate whatever the kitchen was making that night. It wasn't until the end of the 18th century that owners of inns and restaurants decided that diners should have the right to make a selection from the various dishes named and described on a displayed poster or chalkboard.

In the 19th century, individual menus were given to "important" guests at restaurants, and it wasn't until the 1920s that individual menus for all diners became universally accepted.

Times have changed since artists like Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec designed menus in exchange for free meals. Menus are no longer just a way to tell diners what's available (and maybe show them a pretty picture); they're also considered an important merchandising tool. A brochure from Menus for Profit, Inc., a restaurant consulting firm, says that the objective of their menu designs "is to not only influence your guests to order more items per visit, but to influence them to order those items that produce greater than average gross profits." So while you're perusing a menu to decide how to fill your stomach, remember that the menu may be crafted to empty your wallet.

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