A fascinating look at 170 years of vegan dining

If you had been vegan in the 19th century, what could you have ordered on a restaurant menu? And how would your options have improved over time? The New York Public Library’s collection of historical menus can help answer these questions and more. The collection contains nearly 50,000 menus from restaurants and hotels across the United States, about a quarter of which have been digitized and transcribed so the public can browse them online.

“I think the menus are fascinating cultural artifacts that help us understand immigration, urban development, the history of food,” said Rebecca Federman, who has worked with the menus at the library for more than a decade and now manages the collection. “But in a larger context, they can reveal so much more.”

As examples, Federman said contemporary conductors have looked to the collection for inspiration and writers have used it to research details to include in their works of historical fiction. A marine biologist once searched menus for clues about changes in wild fish populations.

You would probably expect to see dramatic changes in vegan cuisine over the past 170 years. With the NYPL menu collection, we can see exactly how and when it evolved.

The dinner menu of a hotel from 1854

1850-1870: Side dishes and vegan snacks

The first menus of the collection did not give much detail. Their offerings are more like a grocery list, with dishes clearly listed, including “oranges, figs, beets, or squash.”

Among the menus of the mid-19th century, none seem to offer a starter without meat. But if you time traveled back to that time, you could probably still find enough to fill you up. Choose a staple carb such as boiled rice or toast, pair it with vegetables and plain spreads, celery, radish relish or canned plums, top it all off with nuts for a bit of crunch, and you have a meal, if not very inconsistent.

Vegnews.1881menu_crop1881 Hotel Lobby Menu

1870-1900: There is always salad

Late 19th century menus still offered many hot vegetable side dishes, but it seems that an increased interest in salads and relishes (cold vegetables) emerged at this time. The chicory and cucumber salad would have been refreshing on a summer day, or if you really wanted to cool down, you could opt for frozen tomatoes and lettuce.

Also at that time, potatoes reigned supreme among the side dishes, which are still to this day a vegan’s best friend in a non-vegan restaurant. Plain potatoes were prepared in every form imaginable, including fried, grilled, mashed, boiled, and ribbons.

Dairy-free frozen desserts were also common during this era. Vegans could have indulged in a gooseberry sorbet or a young America sorbet (the jury is still out on what exactly that is, so best to ask the waiter if this flavor ever reappears on a menu).

vegnews.1900menu_cropCa pure food

1900-1950: The dawn of plant-based meats

Of the library menus that have been digitized so far, the word “vegetarian” first appeared in 1900 on the menu of a Chicago restaurant called Pure Food Cafe. The restaurant’s name was a reference to the pure food movement of the time, which raised awareness of scandals in the meat industry. It is unclear which dishes would have contained dairy or eggs at the Pure Food Cafe, but it is clear that none of them contained meat. The fake breaded chicken and vegetarian meat sandwich are particularly intriguing.

Vegetable plates became quite common when meat was rationed during World War II. Wartime catering counters across the country list options such as a vegetarian platter with fried tomatoes and a plate of fresh vegetables. Let’s not forget this was also the era of Depression Cake – also known as Crazy Cake or Wacky Cake – which is an accidentally vegan cake invented in the 1940s when products such as eggs and butter were rationed.


1950-1970: going global

The overall menu collection shows a heavy reliance on English, French and German cuisine from the early years, but greater diversity had become commonplace by the mid-20th century.

In Italian-American restaurants that were popular at the time, vegan diners might have chosen vermicelli in scarpara sauce or a host of other types of pasta in tomato-based sauces. Kosher restaurants were often meatless, and although many dishes contained dairy products, there were probably at least a few without animal products.

Avocado – a mainstay of today’s vegan lifestyle – made its debut on menus during this era. Various restaurants served them in an avocado sandwich; romaine, grapefruit and avocado salad; and as a side dish – halved avocado with fruit salad.

Vegnews.199zen palace

1970-2010: The Great American Tofu Boom

Finally, at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century, there was a breakthrough. You would almost expect to find a few intentionally vegan options in most restaurants, at least in big cities. And especially in restaurants serving dishes influenced by Asian cuisines.

Among digitized menus, the first appearance of tofu is on a 1984 menu of a Thai-American restaurant in Minneapolis called The King and I that is still in operation today. In its debut, the king and I served fried tofu with sweet and sour sauce, faux duck and vegetable stir-fry, and vegetarian curry with creamy coconut milk.

Sushi restaurants like Genroku Sushi in New York have served kappa maki (a basic cucumber roll) and oshinko (marinated radish roll). Chinese-American restaurants usually offered many vegetable dishes that made umami with soy sauce instead of meat, such as black mushroom with green kale, bean curd with snow peas and vegetarian stir-fry.

The number of all-vegan restaurants began to climb in the 1990s. For example, Zen Palate in Westbury, New York, served complex, contemporary dishes such as Shredded Melody, shredded soy gluten sautéed with celery, carrots , zucchini and pine nuts in a spicy-sweet sauce with taro spring rolls and brown rice.

Over those years, other American restaurants have perfected the dishes that have become staples of our times, like veggie burgers, veggie lasagna, and meatless chilies. Although not included in these archives, the Follow Your Heart Market & Cafe in Canoga Park, California has begun to launch its famous avocado, tomato and sprout sandwich among other vegan items. since 1970.

Vegnews.ScreamersScreamer’s Pizzeria

2010-today: endless possibilities

The defining change in vegan catering is the emergence of all-vegan restaurants, dedicated vegan menus, and the increased abundance of plant-based alternatives that can be found in both vegan and non-vegan establishments.

Pizza is one of the more progressive concepts that have embraced vegan options. Going vegan no longer requires giving up this favorite food, as vegan cheese and even plant-based meats have found their way into independent and chain pizzerias. “There are no more excuses,” said Joy Strang, executive chef of Screamer’s Pizzeria, which won the 2022 VegNews Veggie Award for Best Vegan Pizzeria.

“We’ve come so far that you can be vegan and you can still enjoy whatever you wanted to enjoy, including pizza,” she said.

Strang recalls the mid-2010s in New York, when vegans no longer accepted the cheeseless crust with vegetables like real pizza. The demand for better toppings and plant-based cheeses led to the birth of Screamer’s in Brooklyn. With homemade almond ricotta, seitan sausage, buffalo cauliflower and an array of other reinvented toppings, Screamer’s offers a hopeful outlook for the next era of American pizzerias.

Vegnews.RavensStrudel_cropThe Raven’s Restaurant

On the west coast, The Ravens restaurant at the Stanford Inn by the Sea in Mendocino, California, elevates vegan cuisine to a refined, refined experience. Many ingredients are organically grown in an on-site garden.

Celebrity chef Matthew Kenney was also a pioneer of vegan gastronomy, launching chic plant-based restaurants around the world. Even omnivorous restaurants have been exposed, as evidenced by Eleven Madison Park’s shocking but famous change to turn its omnivorous tasting menu into an all-vegan menu.

Vegan cooking has come a long way from frozen tomatoes with lettuce, and it’s evolving at a rapid pace. We can’t wait to see (and taste) what the next decades will bring.

For more vegan history, read:
Are Oreos vegan? The story of this 110-year-old cookie
The Untold (Vegan) Story of Baskin Robbins
The Vegan History of National Donut Day

Vote for the 2022 awards for the best vegan ice cream in the United States.


About Vivian J. Smith

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