The world often revolves around lunch, whether it’s a power lunch at The Palm or as simple as a cheeseburger and fries on the run.
One thing is certain, it’s a subject worthy of further examination and The New York Public Library deconstructs the midday ritual in a surprisingly engaging new exhibit entitled “Lunch Hour NYC.” It runs through Feb. 17.
The exhibit looks at lunch from both a highbrow and lowbrow perspective. It’s divided into four sections: quick lunch, lunch at home, charitable lunch and power lunch.
The city’s school lunch program, which began in 1908 is also featured, as well as that singular New York City attraction, truck food, from pretzels and hot dogs to gyros, falafel and those roasted nuts that always smell better than they taste.
Lunch was once the most important meal of the day and was usually a major sit-down affair. But mechanization, industrialization and finally the age of technology changed the way people viewed their “lunch hour.”
“As we researched, the thing that kept coming up over and over was this idea of lunch — people going to work who don’t have time to go home, and need to find places to eat during the day,” librarian Rebecca Federman, the exhibit’s co-curator told Reuters.
Federman and co-curator and culinary historian Laura Shapiro got the idea of an exhibit examining lunch because of their desire to explore New York’s love affair with food. “If you want to explore the place where food, people and New York City come together, it has to be lunch,” said Shapiro.
The evolution of lunch includes the rise and fall of Automats, soda fountains, cafeterias and ultimately fast food and casual dining restaurants. Many changes are related to economics. “From 1898 to the 1970s, New York was flooded with cafeterias and their ilk. You don’t see that anymore,” she added.
The exhibit draws from the library’s collection of books, vintage menus, historic photographs and other memorabilia. Included are menus from restaurants including Schrafft’s and Delmonico’s, instruction manuals for workers at the Horn & Hardart Automat and photographs by Lewis Hine, Berenice Abbott and others. Famous scenes from movies and television are also included.
Check out the lunch scene from “Family Business below.”