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No Free Lunch, But...

Meryle Evans / September 2012

New York City—Gone are the days of help-yourself-to-a-slice-of-ham-and-a-pickle at the saloon, or drop a few nickels in a slot at the Automat, but currently there’s bountiful food for thought at the New York Public Library, where “Lunch Hour NYC,” an engaging new exhibit, celebrates the rituals of Goth­am’s midday repast, from pretzel vendor to power lunch.

Drawing on the library’s vast collection of menus, photographs, manuscripts, and memorabilia, the display entices visitors to look back at lunch, starting with the evolution of the word, which Samuel Johnson’s English dictionary defined in 1755 as “as much food as one’s hand can hold.” In 1828, Noah Webster, in his American Dictionary of the English Language, wrote that lunch was “a portion of food taken at any time, except at a regular meal.” But two decades later, Webster amended the definition to “a slight repast between breakfast and dinner,” reflecting the fact that most workers lived too far away for a traditional noon dinner at home.

As the pace of life quickened, so did the tempo of the meal. The speed with which Americans consumed their food intrigued foreign visitors, who were fascinated by our tendency to “gobble, gulp, and go,” slurping oysters from a cart or munching a sandwich at a soda fountain. A luncheonette setting with an array of equipment re-created in the exhibit captures the clamorous hustle-bustle atmosphere with the catchy lingo that servers shouted out to the kitchen: “bellywash” (soup), “dress one pig” (ham sandwich), and “nervous pudding” (gelatin dessert). This year marks the centenary of the opening of the first Automat in New York City, and for those of us who fondly recall reveling in the chain’s selection of fresh, reliable, and inexpensive dishes (orange glazed cupcakes were my favorite), the display at the library is a nostalgic delight.

Among the visual records on display are caricatures from Sardi’s and from The Algonquin Round Table, and menus from restaurants like Joe Baum’s Forum of the Twelve Caesars. In one quote from the treasure trove of Baum’s papers in the library, the visionary restaurateur recalls: “We flambéed our shashlik, steak chunks, scallops wrapped in bacon, and also our brandied coffee, and we invented the sparkler for dessert. God help me, the customers liked to set things on fire.” In the final section of the exhibit, which will be open until February 17, 2013, photographs of the contemporary lunch scene vividly portray the diversity of dining throughout the city. There’s also a screen linking to the library’s burgeoning digitized menu collection, and to “What’s on the Menu?” an ongoing project to transcribe menus to a database that will provide an invaluable culinary research resource, menus.nypl.org.