Exhibit serves up NYC lunch history

Lunch boxes are part of the display at the New York Public Library’s “Lunch Hour NYC” exhibit.

NEW YORK — An exhibition on the history of lunch in New York City over the last 150 years serves delicious tidbits.

But don’t rush to see it on your lunch hour. You’ll want much more time to digest all the visually appetizing props and displays at the free exhibition at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue.

“Lunch Hour NYC,” which runs through Feb. 17, takes 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 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. So 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 library’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 more apt today with such staples as sandwiches, pizzas and falafels.

Anyone old enough to remember the Automat that dispensed sandwiches, hot dishes and desserts through coined-operated compartments from 1912-91 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.

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.

and started by one of its longtime volunteers, Miss Frank E. Buttolph.