While every good historical writer obviously needs to do a lot of research and get as many facts as possible right, there are inevitably times where we can’t find any information, the known existing information is scarce and sketchy, or it’s so difficult and time-consuming to locate information that it’s not really worth the effort. When that happens, we need to weigh the need for historical accuracy against how likely it is anyone will actually notice or care if some details aren’t 100% correct.
One of those scenarios is what was on the menu at real restaurants.
I’ve spent the past week working on my World’s Fair chapter in the book formerly known as The Very Last, and part of my research includes finding out what was served at the restaurants. I found several great New York Times articles in the archives (which I can search for free through my local library), along with the information at this awesome repository and some other sources.
However, one thing I didn’t count on was that some of those restaurants didn’t exist during the Fair’s second season in 1940, since almost a dozen foreign pavilions in the Government Zone were closed due to WWII. Other restaurants offered different menu items in 1940.
Above is the original menu of the Iraqi café, which sounds totally awesome, but which wasn’t the same during the second season. After I wrote a scene of Cinni and some of her friends having lunch there during their first day at the Fair, I discovered the café expanded to a full restaurant and added savoury Middle Eastern food. I can’t discount the possibility that they still offered those sweet date-based dishes, but that was no longer the entirety of their menu in 1940.
Historical menus absolutely can be found if you know where to look. Some major restaurants will mention the evolution of their menu and food offerings over the years in the history section of their websites. The New York Public Library has a huge free online treasure trove of archived menus. I’ve found numerous websites and serious blog posts about Brooklyn’s sadly closed Gage and Tollner restaurant (which was kind of like Delmonico’s).
But sometimes, it’s just too time-consuming and difficult, or even downright impossible, to track down certain details. Yeah, I could fly up to NYC and spend a few days looking through archives, or pay an archivist or librarian to do the research for me and send me the relevant information. But is that really worth the effort when the World’s Fair only occupies a single chapter? It’s not like the entire book or an entire part of the book is about the Fair!
In the absence of 100% proof, we should err on the side of plausibility. E.g., a seafood restaurant probably wouldn’t serve hamburgers. Vegetarian and vegan options just weren’t a thing until fairly recently. A French café wouldn’t offer Thai food.
Using a fictional restaurant eliminates the possibility of inadvertent error entirely.
Plus, how many people are going to notice or care if you include a menu item that may not have really been available on that date at that restaurant? I highly doubt that’ll pull anyone normal out of the story like a blatant anachronism would. You shouldn’t stress over a tiny detail that’s not important to the overall book. All that matters is doing the best you could with the information available.
Another little detail you may not always be able to find is makeup colours. There are plenty of vintage makeup ads to be found, and vintage beauty bloggers, but not all makeup comes from major name brands. Many makeup companies also like to give their colours creative names, beyond simple designators like red, pink, and green.
Also, makeup colours were a lot more conservative decades ago. The kind of lipsticks I like to wear (black, dark blue, dark green, purple) didn’t exist, and while nailpolish had a somewhat larger range, it also generally didn’t include colours like black, orange, and purple.
Do you notice or care if a few minor historical details aren’t 100% accurate? Do you appreciate an author’s note explaining the reasons for such decisions?