And then there’s lunch hour.
“Everybody talks at once; everybody orders at once; everybody eats at once; and everybody seems anxious to pay at once” is how a New York observer described the scene in 1868.
In 1901 Munsey’s Magazine observed, “Haste seems to be a controlling factor in the luncheon of the worker.”
All of which means that lunch hour is probably not the ideal time to see the new exhibition “Lunch Hour NYC” at the New York Public Library, because time will be too short, the galleries too crowded and the need to grab a bite too great.
This show should ideally be seen at a more leisurely pace, to savor the repast prepared by its curators — the culinary historian Laura Shapiro and the library’s Rebecca Federman, who has worked with the culinary collections — and to leave room to digest their offerings.
Really? Can an exhibition about the history of lunchtime in the city have that much to say? Yes: Going to this show is a bit like heading out to a street cart or a food truck and finding that there is much more to choose from than you thought possible.
And so it is here. There are sections on street foods, on Horn & Hardart Automats, on home lunches, school lunches, charity lunches and power lunches. There are selections from the library’s 45,000-strong collection of menus, a manuscript by Jack Kerouac written at a cafeteria and W. H. Auden’s piquant 1947 poem “In Schrafft’s,” perhaps drafted on site. 

In Schrafft’s

A poem by
01/16/2004
1000 Madison Avenue, NY
Neighborhood: Upper East Side


Having finished the Blue-plate Special
And reached the coffee stage,
Stirring her cup she sat,
A somewhat shapeless figure
Of indeterminate age
In an undistinguished hat.

When she lifted her eyes it was plain
That our globular furore,
Our international rout
Of sin and apparatus
And dying men galore,
Was not being bothered about.
»
Which of the seven heavens
Was responsible her smile
Wouldn't be sure but attested
That, whoever it was, a god
Worth kneeling-to for a while
Had tabernacled and rested.
July 1947

It is all playfully and elegantly designed. The Web resources are rich as well, including detailed links to images and invitations to help transcribe menus from the library’s collection.
Even after a quick visit, you might echo the young Parisians who have become fans of the American-inspired gourmet-food trucks in Paris: “Très Brooklyn,” they say — a term “that signifies a particularly cool combination of informality, creativity and quality,” The New York Times reported recently.
You begin at the library with the mundane: New York’s street scenes. The central gallery is almost a stage set in which carts and storefronts present their offerings: pretzels (which we learn once had a disreputable reputation because of their association with saloons); hot dogs (“before the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906,” they were “the sort of food that mothers warned their children never to eat”); pizza (the Pizza Principle: “Since 1960, the cost of a subway ride and a slice of pizza has been nearly the same”).
You see a 1932 menu from a Japanese restaurant on West 47th Street, and learn how Japanese restaurateurs have packaged their immigrant tastes for New York customers. (A “Suki-Yaki Dinner” includes “beef tenderloin,” olives and celery hearts, for $1.25.) A display about “Chinese takeout” has a delivery bicycle with plastic bags wrapped over the seat that looks as if it had just pulled up on the sidewalk. And there is a video interview with Ed Beller, who invented the Admar stainless-steel hot dog cart, which became the standard.
But all of this is something of an appetizer; street foods are a small slice of a larger phenomenon. The New York lunch is far more complicated and unusual.
Historically, we learn, lunch had negligible importance. In English rural life the main meal during the day was known as “dinner.” And you still can find a leisurely approach to the midday meal in Mediterranean climes.
In his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson suggested that “lunch” was derived from foreign words referring to “a small piece” or “clutch.” “Lunch” means “as much food as one’s hand can hold.” An 1841 version of Noah Webster’s dictionary is here too, in which lunch is defined as “a portion of food taken at any time, except at a regular meal.”
Lunch, in other words, was traditionally unconnected to the rituals of dining; it was unscheduled, informal, eaten using the hands rather than utensils. Lunch is perhaps the perfect description for the food offered on street carts.
But while this informality still thrives, lunch was transformed with the growth of New York as a trading, manufacturing and finance center. The midday meal could no longer be treated as a dinner. Nor could lunches be grabbed haphazardly. Eating schedules were codified. As the city expanded, and workers downtown could no longer return home to eat during the day, the lunch hour took off.
The exhibition even suggests that New York gave the lunch hour a modern identity. The city “reinvented lunch in its own image.” Even 150 years ago, the “crowds, the rush and the dizzying range of foods” during lunchtime in New York were startling to visitors.
Was New York unique in this? That is uncertain here, but the evidence is compelling. We know that in industrialized towns, both in the United States and England, lunch scheduling was standardized. But educated Parisian civil servants in the novels of Zola, for example, seem to have inordinate flexibility in their midday schedules.
And in late-19th-century New York? The exhibition quotes the journalist George G. Foster, who wrote in the book “New York in Slices” in 1849: “Everything is done differently in New York from anywhere else — but in eating the difference is more striking than in any other branch of human economy.” The schedule was firm, and haste was the rule.
An industry developed out of the lunch hour. One wall-size 1888 etching here, “A Down-Town Lunch-Room in New York,” shows waiters and top-hatted diners pressed together in a tumult of food and conversation.
The automat, a few decades later, was almost the opposite: Tumult was replaced by metallic compartments and magically sleek mechanisms. Drop a coin, turn a knob, and a glass door would open, revealing individual servings seemingly untouched by human hands. The automated office was answered by the automated cafeteria.
The library has a collection of Horn & Hardart papers, and if you recall those marble emporiums only in their decades of decline, you can get a sense here of the impact they once had. In the early 1930s there were 41 automats in New York. Press a button here on a Horn & Hardart coffee spout (it was the Starbucks of its day), and you hear tributes to the automat in Moss Hart and Irving Berlin’s 1932 musical, “Face the Music.” By the 1950s, though, automats were struggling. Soon they were all facing the music.
There is much more here, as the history unfolds: samplings of luncheonette slang from 1940, in which a waitress might call out for some “nervous pudding” (gelatin) or a bowl of “belly wash” (soup).
There is a too brief account of company lunchrooms that suggests a rich and unexplored subject. We see here a lunchroom at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company’s main office on Madison Avenue, which opened in 1909 and served more than 4,000 clerks a day. Each had filled out cards listing menu preferences: “Men and women ate in separate lunchrooms, and everyone had an assigned seat so that waitresses could quickly deliver the right meal to each person. The clerks were allowed 35 minutes for lunch, and the meal was free.”
And there is a survey of the home lunch as well. Immigrant families might mix cooking traditions at lunch in ways they would not at dinner. Families with different economic status might end up eating similar lunches.
We learn too of sandwiches and of the “quintessential American sandwich filling,” peanut butter, once considered “an elegant treat.” And the quintessential American bread? Wonder Bread, whose sliced uniformity eliminated “a century’s worth of social distinctions among sandwiches.”
People will always find ways of reinventing differences. But despite power lunches and charity lunches, despite lunchrooms for clerks and executive dining halls for top brass, a strong tradition can be seen here right through the final gallery, with its photographs of contemporary lunch sites. Lunch is the democratic meal, the great leveler, a break in the rituals of social and economic life. Anybody could be standing next to you, grabbing as much food as the hand can hold.
Très Brooklyn!

NOTE: The reader is referred to Christopher Morley's short story,, "The Commutation Chophouse" (1927) and the comments in the post for February 10, 2010, "Bad Apples"