29 January 2013

Lunch Hour

"Hot Dog Stand, West St. and North Moore, Manhattan" Berenice Abbott (1936)

Lunch is a meal that most of us give little thought to other than what type of sandwich or salad we can grab. A current exhibit at the New York Public Library—“Lunch Hour NYC”—takes a look at how over the years this meal evolved to reflect the busy needs of the city's workers and residents.

At one time in our past, lunch was a meal eaten at home. Yet in New York City at the turn of the last century, with an increased focus on time efficiency, most workers could not afford that luxury. Hence the creation of the lunch hour, a fixed time during which workers could consume a quick meal, often at one of the city’s many cafeterias or company lunch rooms (an ingenious invention that ensured workers came back from their lunch break on time). Later on the power lunch would emerge, distinguishing that group who were not confined to a regimented time slot for dining. 

Prominently on display in the centre of the exhibit are the all-important food carts that have long helped to feed a hungry city. Among the foods sold on the street over the years were oysters, hot dogs, and pretzels. Did you know that pretzels once had a bad reputation? They were associated with saloons.

Workers are not the only ones to receive mention in the exhibit. A section on children discusses the creation of school lunch programs and includes a wall of lunch boxes (I actually recognized two that I had as a child).

I was happy to see Mrs. Parker make an appearance. A small wall is devoted to the Algonquin Hotel with its famed Round Table—a group of writers and artists who routinely met for lunch at the hotel in the 1920s. Mrs. Parker, one of the few women in the group, is represented with a portrait and a note to Harold Ross, editor and founder of the New Yorker, that reads “Ah, look, Harold. Isn’t it cute? Dorothy. I love you.” A menu from 1949 features one of the hotel’s most popular menu options—chicken hash with pancakes and new peas ($2.25). For those short on funds, a cup of tea ($.35) was consumed along with the free popovers and celery sticks.

The highlight though was the section on the beloved automat. Horn & Hardart opened their first New York City automat in 1912, offering diners a variety of choices by simply dropping some nickels into a slot and opening a door to pull out their selected dish. Their popularity waned in the 1950s and the last one shut its doors in 1991.

An actual automat is in the exhibit complete with labels and working doors. For one nickel you could purchase baked beans or creamed spinach. Two nickels got you a couple of donuts, mac and cheese, or a chicken potpie. Unfortunately, opening the doors don't reveal these dishes but recipe cards are available so you can recreate the same meals at home. A nearby screen shows film and TV clips set in automats including my favourite food fight from Easy Living.

I'm not sure if New York can take total credit for the changes to our consumption of a mid-day meal but I do know that the exhibit will make you extremely hungry so make sure to eat your lunch before visiting.

“Lunch Hour NYC “ is at the main branch of the New York Public Library through February 17, 2013. For more information visit the site here.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...