Instead of chowing down on that peanut butter and jelly sandwich at your desk today, why not use your lunch break to learn about where your midday snack came from? Enter the New York Public Library’s new exhibition, Lunch House NYC, which presents a fascinating investigation of the evolution of the daily meal. The showcase explains how lunch is actually an urban innovation that came about during industrialization, when workers couldn’t head home until the end of the day. And it suggests that New Yorkers had a big hand in making it what it is today.
Culinary historian Laura Shapiro and NYPL culinary collections librarian Rebecca Federman curated the exhibit, which features segments on street food, home-made lunches, power lunches, school lunches, and charity lunches. There are menus pulled from the library’s 45,000-piece archive of menus, life-sized New York street carts stocked with pretzels and hot dogs, vintage lunch-pails, and a list of lunchroom slang. Shapiro says it best:
Lunch came into its own—it really acquired the size and shape and substance that it has in America today—in New York. New York is emblematic, arguably, of large North American manufacturing cities—it has all the conditions that make America different from the Old World in terms of speed and work and the arrangement of life. In New York, the focus of people’s lives is work, and lunch is the meal that was just made to fit into the industrial, urban workday.
Jam-packed with artifacts and thoughtful commentary, the exhibition attests to the fact that there’s much more to the history of lunch than meets the eye (or the stomach). Nicola Twilley over at Edible Geography did a great Q&A with the exhibition’s curators, which is worth a pre-show read.