Harley Spiller Photo: Vincent Laforet/The New York Times
He says he’s just a guy who collects stuff but Harley Spiller is being modest. He has a legendary collection of Chinese menus and, for the first time, is making many of them available to Cool Culinaria’s online gallery.
Dating from 1910, these menus have striking graphics, colorful imagery and provide a fascinating record of how Chinese food became a staple of American cuisine.
With vastly differing styles reflecting diverse eras, they have been given a modern twist and are reproduced on giclee prints, stretched canvases, mugs and greetings cards.
An acknowledged authority on Chinese food, Harley has been collecting Chinese menus for more than 30 years and now has an estimated 10,000 plus menus. He began collecting menus after moving to New York in 1981. ”For me, menus are a lens into the culture and society of different eras,” he says. ”They’re historical documents that give us a physical link to periods and places that have disappeared.”
Recently The Guinness Book of World Records gave him an award for the largest privately-owned menu collection.
Museum exhibitions of his menus and other food-related artifacts have been held at The Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper Hewitt National Design museum, The New York Historical Society, The Museum of Chinese in the Americas and elsewhere.
The author of Chow Fun City; three Centuries of Chinese Cuisine in New York City, published by Columbia University Press, Harley has also allowed artists and scholars to look at his collection.
Harley is the first in a series of private menu collectors who will be working with Cool Culinaria in its mission to "rescue" vintage menus from obscurity.
“I’m very happy to be partnering with Cool Culinaria because it’s way of allowing these images to be more widely seen,” said Spiller. “There’s a lot for people to enjoy and learn from these menus.”