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Lunch Hour NYC

25 Jun

Lunch Hour NYC

On Friday, Lunch Hour NYC, an exhibition celebrating the history of lunch in this fair metropolis opened at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A Schwarzman Building.  When I received an email announcement of the event, I squealed in my cubicle like a giddy teenager.  Could there be a more perfect way to be a lunch break tourist?

Did you know the concept of lunch didn’t exist until the 19th century? Until then, workers would return home for “dinner” with their families at midday. Industrialization changed this dramatically: employees traveled farther for work and ate a shortened, midday meal at their places of employment while dinner was pushed to later in the day.

Lunch Hour NYC explores not only the evolution of lunch, but the history of the New York City school lunch program, ethnic influences on New York lunches, power lunches, take out, and my favorite, the story of the Automat.

Automat - Pies

Before coming to New York, I’d always dreamed of visiting one of the world famous Automats I’d seen in old movies. For the record, I could write a book about all of the glamorous and exciting things I was expecting when I moved to New York (1930s style train cars, supper clubs, tea parties) contrasted against what I really found (thumping JLo and 50 Cent music, the filthiest GAP imaginable, and obscene prices at the Times Square McDonald’s).  When I moved to New York in 2003, the glamour of the Automat was a long distant memory.

Automat History

The first New York Automat was opened in Times Square almost a century ago by Joe Horn and Frank Hardart on July 2, 1912. The concept was simple, if a person was hungry, they could drop a nickel or two into a slot, open a little compartment door, and voila: fresh, homemade food. Basically it was the restaurant version of a giant vending machine. The food was famous for its high quality, great taste, and low price point.  The other draw was the world famous Automat coffee. What I would give to try just one sip?

Automat Coffee

By the 1950s the popularity of the Automat began to diminish as office buildings opened their own cafeterias and fast food chains emerged.  Due to declining quality and a lack of consumer interest, the last Automat closed its doors in 1991. The good news is, the exhibition includes free, take-home recipes of famous Automat dishes. I grabbed baked beans, burgundy sauce with beef and noodles, and pumpkin pie.  Now I can have my own Automat experience at home! I’ll just cook dinner, put it in my cupboard, pretend to put a nickel in the slot, open up  my cupboard again and enjoy my automated treat!

Take Home Recipes

As much as I was hoping to complete the exhibit in under an hour, it just can’t be done!  There is so much interesting ground to cover, I’ll definitely be back soon for a second visit.

Lunch Hour NYC
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street
New York, NY 10018-2788
Open until: February 17, 2013
Cost: Free