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This, Kun argues, reveals not only the white flight and subsequent decades of economic disinvestment that have led these neighborhoods, now predominantly African-American, to be classified as “food deserts,” but also the limitations of the archive itself.When he began the project, back in 2013, Kun brought the celebrated Angeleno chef Roy Choi along with him to see the collection.As the automobile rose to dominance in the nineteen-thirties, for example, Wilshire Boulevard became an important artery—and the city’s “first mobile restaurant row,” as reflected in the collection’s earliest drive-in restaurant menus.
Josh Kun, the book’s editor and the curator of the exhibition, is a seasoned explorer of the library’s dustier filing cabinets. He began sifting through the collection according to geography, working with his students to pin each menu to a restaurant address.
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As historical documents go, restaurant menus may seem a little frivolous compared to official records, private letters, or even newspaper and magazine clippings.
There are, he discovered, a handful of major players in the L. A number of them agreed to loan menus to Kun for the book and exhibition, to fill gaps in the library’s own collection.
Others, such as the owner of a stash of old Jewish-deli menus, weren’t as forthcoming. Kun’s white whale is the menu from the Los Angeles Women’s Saloon and Parlor, in East Hollywood, which opened in 1974 and was, Kun writes in the book, “the first, and last, feminist restaurant in the city.” From the library’s collection, Kun had been able to piece together a history of gender-segregated dining in Los Angeles in the nineteenth century, when many restaurants offered separate, alcohol-free menus for ladies; he had also traced the rise of female cooks and restaurant owners in the nineteen-thirties.Basil, for instance, first appears on menus in the nineteen-seventies, and before long no self-respecting restaurant was without it; aspic, previously a fine-dining mainstay, vanished around the same time.