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Menu from Trader Vic's, Honolulu, HI, 1958

Old restaurant menus—like this 1958 menu from Trader Vic's in Honolulu, Hawaii—can reveal data about wild fish populations.

Photograph by Kyle Van Houtan/NOAA.

Melody Kramer

National Geographic

Published August 13, 2013

Vacationers who took Hawaiian restaurant menus home as souvenirs recently helped piece together a 45-year gap in the state's fishing records.

The menus were used as a data source by several researchers, including Kyle Van Houtan, a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. Van Houtan and his colleagues tracked changing fish populations near the Hawaiian islands based on which fishes appeared on menus during the early and mid-20th century.

Their research, which was recently published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, found correlations between menu items and what local fishing data do exist—which may be able to fill in gaps for the four decades that lack local commercial fishing numbers.

"The menus mimic more than just consumer preference," Van Houtan said. "They also show us what's happening in the ocean."

Van Houtan and his colleagues found that some reef fish—like groupers, mullets, and flounders—were highly prevalent before 1940 before becoming more rare after World War II. Larger, offshore fish and farm-grown fish, meanwhile, rose in popularity as local fishing catches declined and improvements were made in fishing technology.

 

A flathead mullet fish, once a popular menu item in Hawaii, declined in popularity after World War II..

Photograph by Sylvain Cordier, Corbis

 

Altogether, the researchers tracked down almost 400 menus from between 1928 and 1974 from over 150 Hawaiian restaurants.

"We collected menus from museums and Ebay and even from going to people's homes," said Van Houtan. "It's helpful to understand long-term changes when you're trying to understand population health. And we were able to use the menus to help us do that."

Menus as Clues

Menus can often be used to piece together historical moments that may not have other documentation, says Rebecca Federman, the curator of the New York Public Library's extensive menu collection.

"A lot of times—in New York City, at least—a menu is the only artifact we have after a restaurant closes," she said. "They go in and out all the time, and there's very little that remains unless one keeps the menu."

Federman oversees approximately 45,000 menus in the New York Public Library's collection, one of the largest in the world. Researchers come in to learn everything from historic food prices to the availability of certain foods in certain decades.

"We'll get a call from an author saying, 'How much did an egg salad sandwich cost in 1962?'" she said. "They'll consult a menu to get historical details correct."

Others—like Van Houtan—are trying to use the existing data to piece together a larger story. He says using menus for his project was compelling, in part because almost everyone has been to a restaurant and seen a menu.

"And everyone can understand that there used to be certain fish on menus and now there's not," he said.

Next, the researchers say they may look at menu prices, which they didn't do this time around. They've also considered using other historical artifacts—things like pictures of fish taken on docks or diary entries—in addition to menus to help piece together Hawaii's changing fish populations.

"It takes some creative thinking," said study co-author Loren McClenachan. "But it brings people [together] in a way that isn't typically the case in ecological research."

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