Who boasts the best menu in New York? Our vote goes to Rebecca Federman, keeper of the New York Public Library’s culinary collection. The passionate bibliographer—and writer of Cooked Books—talks to IgoUgo about her fascinating job and favorite tables.
IgoUgo: What comprises your work at the New York Public Library, and what are the best parts of your position there?
Rebecca Federman: My official title is Social Sciences Bibliographer, which means I order books and keep on top of trends and publications within the social sciences: women's studies, political science, history, etc. But I also spend a lot of time working with the Library's culinary collection, both the cookbooks and the historic restaurant menu collection. That's one of my favorite aspects of the job: reading through menus from the mid-19th century to the present, helping researchers, and meeting people. It's a job where one wears a lot of hats and is never bored. I like that.
IgoUgo: What is your favorite menu in the library's collection? Do people really regularly donate interesting menus?
Rebecca Federman: I have many, but one of my very favorites is an Air India breakfast menu that was Jacqueline Kennedy's when she flew from Rome to Delhi. It's beautiful. There is another simple bill of fare menu from 1899 with a banana on it that I also love: it's very Andy Warhol/Velvet Underground.
We also have wonderful ocean-liner menus from different international ocean liners, and lots of gorgeous Concorde menus. Travel menus are always a lot of fun.
IgoUgo: People must constantly ask you for New York restaurant recommendations. To where do you steer visitors?
Rebecca Federman: For someone who loves restaurants and restaurant menus, I don't eat out very much! But when I do, there are a few places I gravitate towards: Lupa for Italian food; Fatty Crab in the West Village; Franny's in Brooklyn; Tia Pol for tapas; and Shake Shack for burgers. I also have very fond memories of meals at Tortilla Flats, although it's not necessarily because of the food…
IgoUgo: You have a recurring feature on Cooked Books called "Desert Island Cookbooks," in which you recommend a top pick to your readers. If you were stranded on a desert island, what one meal would you want to have available?
Rebecca Federman: A warm vegetable salad with zucchini, spaghetti with a simple tomato sauce, and maybe ice cream sandwiches for dessert. Nothing fancy, but it sounds good for the long haul.
IgoUgo: You often blog about exotic dishes, from insects to African cuisine to Indian food. How much does place influence your enjoyment of a dish while traveling?
Rebecca Federman: I think place definitely affects your enjoyment of a dish. I'm not sure I can speak objectively about the gelato I consumed so much of in Rome because I was in Rome! And I know my first croissants in Paris from the hotel weren't outstanding, but I think they might have been the best ones I've ever eaten because of where I was.
IgoUgo: What is your favorite food city? Is it the same as your more general favorite destination?
Rebecca Federman: I think two of my favorite food cities were surprises to me. When I traveled through Italy a few years ago, my friend and I weren't sure what to expect from Bologna, but we both loved it—especially the food. I remember eating the most amazing tortellini Bolognese in what looked like someone's home kitchen: The light was fluorescent and harsh, there was not much ambience to speak of, yet it lives on in my memory as one of the best meals I'd ever eaten. It was homey and real and the food was absolutely amazing.
One of my other favorite food places is Spain. When I went to Spain for the first time many years ago I was told by friends not to expect much from the food. How wrong they were! I fell head over heels for Spanish food, and for someone who enjoys multiple meals a day, I loved standing at a tapas bar, enjoying some Tinto de Verano and eating boquerones—every few hours.
IgoUgo: In classes you've taught, is there an aspect of American food history that you most enjoy sharing with novices?
Rebecca Federman: I'm hardly an expert in American food history, but I taught a class on the history of early lager beer in New York City, and it was great fun. The history of lager is not simply the story of a yeast arriving and someone making beer from it, but rather it stems from German immigration in New York, German beer gardens on the Bowery, temperance reformers, and the Croton Reservoir, which provided the City with access to fresh water, which was crucial in making lager. Coincidentally, the Croton Reservoir is now the site of the New York Public Library!
It's what I love best about working with the culinary collections here at the Library: seeing how our culinary history is so closely linked to our larger social and cultural history.