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New exhibition serves up a history of lunch in New York

NEW YORK--An exhibition on the history of lunch in New York City over the past 150 years serves up some delicious tidbits.

But visitors will need more time than their lunch hour allows to digest all the visually appetizing displays at the free exhibition at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue.

“Lunch Hour NYC” transports visitors back in time with sections and artifacts from the library's vast collection on street foods, home lunches, school lunches and the once popular Horn & Hardart Automats. The first gallery sets the stage with a wooden cart filled with white (faux) oysters, an aluminum 1960s hot dog stand with a red-and-blue umbrella, a basket piled high with pretzels and a delivery bicycle purporting to carry Chinese takeout.

It reveals that the midday meal in colonial times was dinner but changed to lunch with the advent of industrialization and New York's importance as a center of commerce and finance. With that, the demand for a quick, inexpensive lunch increased.

“New York was a city focused on time, speed and efficiency,” the exhibition notes. “Pocket watches became widespread, and punch clocks were introduced to make sure employees arrived and departed strictly on time. The most important part of the lunch break was not the food but how long it took to eat.”

“There's something unique to New York, this emphasis on speed and efficiency and getting back to work and making money,” said Rebecca Federman, the NYPL's culinary librarian and co-curator with culinary historian Laura Shapiro.

Visitors also learn the etymology of the word “lunch” as provided by Samuel Johnson in 1755. He defined it as “as much food as one's hand can hold” — a description even more apt today with such staples as sandwiches, pizzas and falafels among popular lunchtime items.

Anyone old enough to remember the Automat that dispensed sandwiches, hot dishes and desserts through coined-operated compartments from 1912-1991 will delight in seeing an original on display at the exhibition. There are no edible items now but the exhibition offers the next best thing: The small glass cubicles are filled with original Horn & Hardart recipes for such dishes as macaroni and cheese and creamed spinach.

Clips from films with scenes featuring the Automat play nearby, including “That Touch of Mink” from 1962 with Doris Day.

In the home lunches section — decorated like a 1950s apartment complete with white-and-red checked Formica table and matching chairs — an array of colorful recipe books line a pink wall, and metal storybook lunchboxes fill another.

Cafeteria and restaurant menus, handwritten and printed, also are on display, part of the library's 45,000-menu collection dating from 1842 to the present and started by one of its longtime volunteers, Miss Frank E. Buttolph.

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