Lunch Hour NYC: A Fascinating Exhibition at the New York Public Library

The food truck door entry into the Lunch Hour NYC at the NY Public Library.

Add it to the long, long, long list of reasons to be grateful for New York City: turns out, among the thousands of other amazing things about this town, we also invented lunch! Well, sort of. According to this terrific new exhibition, Lunch Hour NYC at the New York Public Library–the main branch, aka the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, aka the one on 42nd Street with the lions (locaed close to Glenwood's luxury New York City apartments)–prior to the mid-1800s, the day's third meal, "lunch" was eaten at no specific time, and, as Samuel Johnson defined it in his dictionary, consisted only of "as much food as one's hand can hold." But with industrialization, etc., and as New York City became the world's capitol of trade, finance, and industry, it became much more efficient for all workers to eat around the same time. And so the modern-day concept of the lunch hour was born, right here in the big town. 

Photograph of a hot dog cart displayed at the  Lunch Hour NYC exhibit.

Sandwich automat exhibited at the Lunch Hour NYC at the NY Public Library.

Lunch Hour NYC at the NYPL

And that's just the first of dozens of things we learned at Lunch Hour NYC at the NYPL. Really, this is such a smart, well-organized, engaging exhibition, well worth popping into after work (it's open until 7:30 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays… combine it with any number of fun Bryant Park evening activities!), on a Saturday or, of course, on your lunch hour. We loved pretty much the whole thing–and it's a pretty large and rambling exhibition–but highlights of Lunch Hour NYC include a look at the rapid rise and equally rapid fall of the Automat, most famously the Horn and Hardhats, of which there were 40 in NYC alone during their heyday; and the historical survey of the "power lunch", from the woman's group Sorosis, whose maiden lunch in NYC was held at Delmonico's in 1868, the venue chosen precisely because it did not serve women unless accompanied by men (Delmonico's caved), to a look at the Joe Baum post-war empire of Four Seasons, Windows on the World, and the ridiculously decadent, Mad-Men-featured Forum of the Twelve Caesars, which included such overblown menu sections as "Birds–Wild and Otherwise," and "Epicurian Trophies of the Hunt."

Kids at school lunch 1800's photo at the Lunch Hour NYC exhibit.

Wall of kids' metal cartoony lunch boxes at the New York Public Library's Lunch Hour NYC exhibit.

There's also an evocative (depending on how old you are) wall of kids' metal cartoony lunch boxes; some amusing 1940s-ish suggestions from diners at the NYPL staff cafeteria ("Could we have fresher bread for the sandwiches – also a piece of pickle with a sandwich would make it more appetising."); a long, loving look at NYC lunch hour staples such as hot dogs, oysters (really!), pastrami, and sushi, which has apparently been fairly ubiquitous in this town since 1966, when Craig Claiborne wrote in the Times that New Yorkers were eating raw fish “with a gusto once reserved for corn flakes.” There's a jukebox with lunch-themed tunes, lots of terrific old photographs, some crazy cookbooks… it's a true bounty of historical, culinary delights. A banquet! A feast!  

1940s suggestions from diners at the NYPL staff cafeteria, exhibited at Lunch Hour NYC.

Lunch Hour NYC at the New York Public Library Details

Lunch Hour NYC will be on display at the NYPL until February 17, 2013. The Library is located on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, and is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m., and on Tuesday and Wednesday until 7:30. Closed Sundays. For lots more information, please see the NYPL Lunch Hour NYC website, here.  

Entry into the New York Public Library for the Lunch Hour NYC exhibit.


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