www.agentofchaos.com presents guest artist - Harley Spiller aka Inspector Collector

Sunday, August 24, 2003

A Man and His Menus, All 6,000 of Them

The first one was slipped under Harley Spiller's door.
Vincent Laforet/The New York Times

Harley Spiller has a few things lying around his one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side, among them 8,000 decals with graffiti, 120 unusual neckties, hundreds of magnets, 500 marbles, 150 handbills for fortune tellers, 500 packs of chewing gum, 46 yarmulkes and 6,000 keys.

But Mr. Spiller, a genial 44-year-old with a big frame and an even bigger smile, is best known for hoarding an item that most New Yorkers are only too happy to throw in the trash. He has more than 6,000 Chinese takeout menus from restaurants all over the world, everywhere from Iceland to Ireland to Venezuela to Austria. And they come in all varieties, printed not only on paper but also on fans, glass boxes and handkerchiefs.

Soon after moving to the city from Buffalo in 1981 and living on what he terms a "one-figure salary," Mr. Spiller became intrigued by the ubiquitous menus.

"One night, I heard a shuffling near the door,'' he recalled, "and my first thought was, 'Uh oh, here comes that mugger, that scary New York you always hear about' and this little menu came sliding under the door. I picked it up, and right away I found a few typographical errors, and I kept examining it.''

The menu that arrived that day sparked an obsession that grew with time. Mr. Spiller soon started going out of his way to collect menus, walking more and more blocks to nurse his new obsession.

"I just had a big pile of them, about 70,'' he said, "and then one rainy Saturday I decided to alphabetize them. And it was fascinating - the differences in cuisine, the changes in spelling.'' Soon, Mr. Spiller became a self-taught expert on Chinese cuisine, regularly venturing to Chinatown to sample cuisine more exotic than the shrimp in lobster sauce he and his family used to enjoy at their local Chinese restaurants. He is now a board member of the Institute of Chinese Cuisine and a contributor to its magazine, Flavor and Fortune. Mr. Spiller said he was recently paid $200 by the makers of a forthcoming film called "Pancho Villa" to advise them on a Jewish menu that featured Chinese food. He also works on other fronts to encouraging collecting, especially among the young; he has developed a children's TV show called "Show Your Stuff With Inspector Collector'' and is negotiating with several television networks to broadcast the program.

And his collection keeps growing. On a recent Sunday, Mr. Spiller showed off some of his treasures while preparing steamed flounder with ginger and scallion, spiced bean curd with Sichuan chilis, and a roasted pig ear and vinegar appetizer. His most prized item and the oldest menu in his collection is a tiny card with a red tassel in the corner, sitting in a black lacquer box; the card listed chop suey, tea and a few indecipherable items served at a 1879 banquet held by Li Hung Chung, one of the first Chinese emissaries to travel to the United States. The visitor angered Americans by refusing to indulge in steak and potatoes in favor of the Chinese meals prepared by his own chef.

And despite such rarities, Mr. Spiller hasn't lost sight of the practical nature of his collection. "All of these should be in acid-free binders,'' he said, "but I don't do that. I keep them out so I can fold them and stuff them in my pocket. They're takeout menus, after all."

Inspector Collector
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