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Are we really what we eat? What role does food play in shaping collective identity? How can food reflect the defining qualities of a generation?

Our project asks these guiding questions in analyzing the New York Public Library’s “What’s On the Menu?” dataset as it explores the generational shifts in American culture and lifestyle during the 20th century.

The New York Public Library has collected data from over 45,000 menus dating as far back as 1840, allowing for the exploration of trends in restaurant dining over time. Particularly, historical transitions and generational shifts are reflected through restaurant food consumption patterns, which are outlined in the menu data set. This project compares restaurant dish options present in restaurants from 1930 to 1949 (representative of the Silent Generation) to that of 1950 to 1969 (representative of the Baby Boomers). The trends that emerge from the analysis of popular menu dishes in these time periods align with each era’s historical and social contexts. Restaurant dining was viewed as a luxury during the Silent Generation, in large part due to World War I and the Great Depression. Eventually, restaurant dining became a more feasible and appealing option for American families beginning in the second half of the 20th century, largely due to the progression of women’s roles in both domestic and urban life after World War II.

A general consensus exists among scholars that later generations participate in casual restaurant dining more often than earlier generations, supported by positive trends in domestic spending on food-away-from-home (FAFH) over time. The Silent Generation spent an average of 29% of their food budget on FAFH while the Baby Boomers spent an average of 36.5% of their food budget on FAFH. This increase aligns with an increase in the mean number of earners per household from the Silent Generation to the Baby Boomers, 1.2 to 1.7 respectively. Moreover, although the data set does reveal differences in food options present in menus during the two respective time periods, ambiguity arises when attempting to categorize specific types of food as fast food (Fan & Zan, 2010).

Examining the trends in the New York restaurant data provides valuable insights into societal eating habits. Analysis of food consumption patterns from menu data can be used to explore potential impacts on health on a large scale. FAFH spending has continued to rise since the 1950s, revealing that restaurants have increasingly become an integrated part of modern American society. Health impacts associated with this increase must also be considered, since unhealthy food options are generally more easily and readily prepared than healthier food options (i.e., fast food). Research also shows that FAFH is lower in fiber and calcium and higher in fat compared to foods prepared in the home (Fan & Zan, 2010). Moreover, the Baby Boomer Generation is currently entering retirement and thus health impacts associated with poor diet are now becoming evident. This project could provide potential explanations for trends in Baby Boomer health that are observed in the present day, such as spikes in diabetes and obesity rates, among others (Fan & Zan, 2010). Overall, the generational differences between the Silent Generation and the Baby Boomer Generation gave rise to an increase in unhealthy diets, the effect of which can be seen in Americans today.