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New Exhibit Takes Bite Out of History of Lunch in Big Apple

MIDTOWN — Let's do lunch.

From mystery meat splattered on school lunch platters to the fresh oysters offered at noon at Delmonico's, traditional lunches offered in New York City have rich and complex histories.

A new exhibit, "Lunch Hour NYC," set to be served up by the New York Public Library this Friday, takes a nibble at this appetizing history by examining the city's various foods and eateries, ranging from pretzel puscharts to tablecloth restaurants, that have defined lunch hour over the past 150 years.

"'Lunch Hour NYC' is the best kind of food story, full of familiar landmarks but with a history that's new to most people," culinary historian and exhibition co-curator Laura Shapiro said in a statement.

A placard advertising apple selling by the Depression-era unemployed, in 1930, is on view at the NYPL exhibit.
A placard advertising apple selling by the Depression-era unemployed, in 1930, is on view at the NYPL exhibit.
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NYPL, Rare Book Division

"If you want to explore the place where food, people and New York City come together, it has to be lunch."

Featuring artifacts such as old menus, recipe pamphlets and even pieces of hot dog carts from the early 20th century, the exhibit nibbles at the relationship between society and lunch hour, poring over the transformation of diets with changes of the city's vast and eclectic culinary history.

The exhibit also shows how the modern notion of "lunch" began with the industrialization of New York.

What was previously a light snack eaten before the Colonial tradition of midday dinner — defined by Samuel Johnson as "as much food as one's hand can hold" — lunch eventually evolved into an elongated daily break from the city's bustling workday, traditionally taking place between the hours of noon and 2 p.m.

Old menus, taken from the NYPL's largest menu collection in the world, note the progression of the tradition, examining the 1837 birth of sit-down "power lunches," still popular among Downtown power brokers, to the history of the New York public lunch, which began as a charitable act for underserved kids in 1908.

"Lunch Hour NYC" also explains how pretzels, pizza and hot dogs gained their own "New York" identities, and how the influx of immigrants and the city's changing fashions led to the popularity of lunch foods as fattening as Jamaican beef patties and as slimming as salad.

Ultimately, the exhibit shows how New York, with its mix of cultures, flavors and styles, became the nation's epicenter of the popular midday meal.

"Food is a mirror that reflects the people who cook it, and the people who eat it," an NYPL spokesman said in a promotional video for the exhibit.

"Work obsessed, time obsessed and in love with ingenious new ways to make money, New York City reinvented lunch in its own image."

The exhibit opens on Friday, June 22, at the Gottesman Exhibition Hall inside the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.