"Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what's for lunch." —Orson Welles
Perhaps no meal captures the heart and imagination of New York City quite like lunch—whether it's a hurried hotdog from a street vendor or a cocktail-fueled powwow, lunch is the meal that defines this city. And to prove it, one of New York's other great institutions—the Public Library—has put together a whiz-bang new exhibit dedicated to the history of the midday meal.
Called "Lunch Hour NYC," the free exhibit in the lobby of the Stephen A. Schwartzman building (at 5th Ave and 42nd St) is geared toward history buffs and food nerds alike. Covering 150 years of lunch history in the city, the collection is designed to explain how lunch acquired its modern personality. Curators have been culling the archives for over two years to gather bits of lunch-centric ephemera both large and small—from handwritten cafeteria menus to a full-sized recreation of a classic Automat.
The story of lunch is split into four sections: quick lunch, lunch at home, charitable lunch and power lunch. It's organized chronologically, starting with the earliest definition of lunch on record: "As much food as one's hand can hold," according to a 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. Fast forward to the turn of the last century, when time-obsessed New Yorkers saw the rise of the quick-lunch: the phrase refers both to the speed with which the meal was consumed and the restaurants that served it.
From there visitors get up close and personal with the Automat, one of the most beloved symbols of New York lunch culture circa the first half of the 20th century—including a literal "behind the scenes" look at the backside of the machines. (Also keep an eye out for the interactive coffee dispenser—you'll be surprised what happens when you hit the button.) After the automat fell from favor, soda fountains—which have been around since the 1800s, serving "therapeutic" carbonated water with medicinal herbs—had their moment to shine, thanks largely to the addition of ice cream and cheap, fast food to their menus. Be sure to check out the luncheonette slang guide to get your nervous puddings and yard stews rights.
Soda fountains eventually give way to the cafeteria culture of the '60s—just peek at an original Jack Kerouac manuscript with an ode to Hector's in Time Square for evidence, and, later, the power lunch, popularized at legendary haunts like Delmonico's and Sardi's. Along the way, explore the advent of street food, complete with recreations of oyster stands and stainless-steel hotdog carts; and learn the origins of some of the city's most iconic foods, like pretzels and pastrami (hint: it started off as cured goose).
Through it all—the exhibit ends with modern midday meals across the five boroughs—lunch acts a lens for the city itself, growing and changing both socially and economically over the course of 150 years. One thing, however, remains constant: as co-curator and culinary historian Laura Shapiro says, "Of all the three meals, it's lunch that's a New Yorker at heart."
Lunch Hour NYC is on view June 22 through February 13, 2012, at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Gottesman Exhibition Hall; free; website