Lunch Hour NYC" at the New York Public Library, and "Beer Here: Brewing New York's History" and the New-York Historical Society -- provide wonderful explorations into the central role that food and drink have always played in the city.
"Lunch Hour NYC," which runs until February 17, 2013, investigates the creation of a meal that used to not exist. For generations, dinner was main midday meal followed by a light supper in the evening. But the rise of factory, the office, and the public school, all led to the need for a quick midday meal. And quick was the operative word; as the exhibition notes, lunch was designed for "speed and efficiency," so that workers would be more productive. (One item in the show is postcard of the gender-segregated Metropolitan Life Insurance Company's lunchroom. The lunches were free and workers were allowed 35 minutes to eat. This way, the company insured people wouldn't leave the building and would be back at their desks on time.)
For many nostalgic New Yorkers, the highlight of the show will be the section devoted to the Automat. While film clips from movies set in Automats roll on the monitor, visitors can explore actual pieces of Automat memorabilia, including old Horn and Hardart vending machines. Other highlights include a display of vintage lunch boxes and samples from the library's extensive menu collection. There are also reminders of how recently social mores were different: a photo from 1969 shows Betty Friedan leading the National Organization of Women in a protest at the Plaza Hotel's venerable Oak Room, which would not admit women at lunch.
When you are done with lunch, why not head uptown for some libation? "Beer Here," at the New-York Historical Society chronicles the long history of brewing in New York City from the Dutch Colonial era to the present. Using maps, paintings, and a wide array of beer ephemera from its collection, the N-YHS paints a vivid picture of how central beer has been to the city's development. For much of the city's early history, beer was safer to drink than water -- one out of every four building in New Amsterdam had a beer tap in it -- and by the 19th century, New York had become one of the hardest drinking cities in the country. The immense volume of alcohol imbibed in New York was one of the leading causes of the growing temperance movement, which ultimately led to Prohibition. The exhibit has a fascinating section on the so-called "noble experiment," which -- in New York, at least -- only led to increased consumption.
About halfway through the exhibit, you may find yourself inevitably craving a beer. Have no fear -- the exhibition doesn't exit into a gift shop, but rather into a saloon that has been set up in the museum to serve an excellent rotating selection of American craft beers.
"Beer Here" runs until September 2, 2012.
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For more on food and drink history -- including the history of Prohibition --
check out Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City
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