- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) - A restaurant menu can tell you much more than what’s for dinner - especially when the menus are more than 100 years old. To Glenn Jones, a Texas A&M; University at Galveston professor, menus dating back to the 1800s are an untapped resource. They provide information that can be used to help establish the natural baseline for various species. They also tell the story of how certain species became so popular, they were eaten to commercial extinction - and how that can be used to control invasive species.

And while the issue of sustainability is something talked about by scientist and policymakers, it’s also making its way to modern day menus, a local restaurant owner said.

The idea to look at menus came to Jones after finding some from the 1950s and 1960s in a store on Strand Street, he said. His curiosity led him to look for more old menus. What he found was a treasure trove of data collecting dust in libraries and historical society offices.

Institutions such as the National Culinary Archives, the New York Library, the New-York Historical Society and the American Antiquarian Society, which collects printed materials from before 1876, have thousands of menus, Jones said.

While books on menu design were plentiful, no one was looking at them the same way Jones was.

He could look for certain species, passenger pigeon, canvasback duck, lobster, turtles, halibut and others, and the price of those dishes over more than 100 years.

“I was the first one to ever look at them from a science point of view,” he told the Galveston County Daily News (https://bit.ly/1y3twY9).

What Jones found was that he could trace the history of some species that were pushed to the brink of extinction - and in the case of the passenger pigeon, over the brink - as well as examples of once despised animals that suddenly became coveted meals.

Adjusting for inflation, a dish of canvasback duck, a large duck that was heavily harvested in the 1800s, was $20 on a menu from Philadelphia’s Continental Hotel dated March 26, 1863. By 1918, when the Migratory Bird Act was approved to help protect the duck and other species, a similar meal of much rarer canvasback duck would have cost about $100 in today’s dollars, Jones said.

“It’s a classic case of supply and demand,” he said.

Market theory predicts that if something becomes increasingly more expensive, consumers eventually will stop buying it, but that doesn’t always happen, Jones said. People will continue to buy, and pay larger sums, for something associated with being upper class, he said.

The passenger pigeon is the “classic example” of a species pushed to extinction by a combination of habitat destruction and hunting, Jones said. While it was plentiful at one time, and could be found on menus and dinner tables across the country, the pigeon was extinct by 1914, Jones said.

Fisheries for species such as cod, Atlantic halibut and abalone have all collapsed because of heavy fishing, he said.

But more than just telling him how much people were willing to pay for a good dinner, Jones said the menus could help figure out how abundant some of these animals were before they were heavily harvested.

Today, scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service keep a database of annual landings of different marine species back to the 1950s. But those records don’t tell the full story, he said.

“Most of these fisheries that you can see, even with canvasback duck and terrapin (turtle) or other things, were being negatively impacted way before 1950,” Jones said.

When it comes to setting reasonable policies and fishing guidelines, there needs to be an understanding of what the natural population baseline was before humans began culling, Jones said.

It’s not perfect, but by using menus with prices that overlap with established data sets allows extrapolations about populations in the past.

“With menus we are trying to go back to 1850 and basically extending the (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) data set back 100 years,” he said.

Danny Hart, one of the owners of Galveston Restaurant Group, said modern day fish quotas and regulations do a better job of protecting marine resources from overharvesting. Sustainability is something that is on everyone’s mind, and something like a new sustainable seafood section could be coming to the group’s menus in Galveston, he said.

“We want to be good stewards of the industry and we want to be good stewards of seafood,” Hart said.

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Information from: The Galveston County Daily News, https://www.galvnews.com

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