By Caroline Birenbaum
It’s always fun to see how the palatial Gottesman Exhibition Hall at the New York Public Library is transformed by the nature of the material on view. This summer it has become a vast food hall, where the social history of the lunch hour is presented, using the resources of the library’s holdings, urban artifacts and cleverly incorporated bits of multimedia to document this quintessentially modern New York custom.
In theory, you needn’t rush to visit, since the show will be up until mid-February. On the other hand, why deny yourself this wonderful free lunch, especially if you want to take advantage of the many accompanying programs. Judging from the visitors when I was there, this exhibit appeals to everyone, from native New Yorkers to tourists, toddlers to centenarians.
The show is organized around four themes: “quick-lunch,” lunch at home, charitable lunch (school lunch programs) and the power lunches of the elite, both men and women. It includes sections on “iconic” foods, such as oysters—notably those purveyed in Thomas Downing’s famed 19th- century oyster cellars—pretzels, pizza, pastrami, deli, Chinese takeout, sushi, Jamaican beef patties and the venerable hot dog.
Don’t miss the video interview with Ed Beller, a fabricator of restaurant equipment, who serendipitously created the first stainless-steel cookers for hot dog carts.
The centerpiece of the exhibit, in terms of inventiveness, nostalgia, and interactivity, is a recreation of an automat, with elegant Art Deco signage, compartment doors you can raise (though no food awaits within), a gorgeous coffee spigot you can handle (alas, that wonderful chicory-coffee aroma is not included) and behind-the-scenes views of the equipment and company customer service manuals. Clips of movie scenes set in automats play on a screen in this section, and recipe cards for four Horn & Hardart favorites (pumpkin pie, baked beans) are available as souvenirs.
Another tactile display is a section of a soda fountain. It was a thrill to press the dispensers, even if thick chocolate syrup didn’t pour out.
The show concludes with a delightful projection of photos of people eating lunch around New York today and an invitation to participate in the Library’s collaborative menu transcription project, which will result in the ability to digitally search the immense menu collection on a dish-by-dish basis.
Can’t wait for a quick lunch? There are two ’wichcraft cafés in the library; restaurants and kiosks in Bryant Park behind the library; and a food truck located on Bryant Park Plaza, 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, weekdays through Labor Day from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Lunch Hour NYC
Through Feb. 17, 2013. New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwartzman Building, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, www.nypl.org. Join the menu transcription project: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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