Lunch Hour NYC
June 22, 2012 — February 17, 2013
NYPL Stephen A. Schartzman Building 5th Avenue and 42nd Street
D. Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibit Hall
On a wintry midday in Midtown in January, after a meeting and before evening theatre adventures, I sidled into a long running exhibit that is now nearing the end of its tenure. Lunch Hour NYC tells a tale from push carts to automats, from pretzels to power lunches, from Sardi’s to the Algonquin, in pictures and film and placards and handouts of the very American tradition of lunch, the midday meal, born in the most American of cities is served up in a delectable displays in this curated exhibit. I couldn’t get enough of it in general and in particular was entranced by an exhibit within the exhibit — an homage to that cantankerous group of wise-cracking pals who lunched and played together on West 44th Street — Round Table, early 20th century-style.More on this below. In short, give this show a visit if you’re anywhere near 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in the next week or so.
I entered the exhibit expecting Jacob Riis tenement images and some history of the lunch concept (lunch originally meant “snack” and morphed into a midday meal along with the development of urban life) and lower east side sidewalk vendors (the pushcart story) and deli ordering. I am not disappointed — we read of tenement poverty and plucky immigrant lives, and Riis images of dim single-room poor living quarters provide some of the illustrations. We learn of the origins of the midday meal-on-the-run, and dictionary definitions and turn of the century lunch room menus are enchanting bits of detritus. We learn of luncheonette slang of the 1940s on signs. And we are allowed to spend time playing with doors and mechanics of a section of a real Horn & Hardart Automat.
And yet, with all these treasures, the section that makes my heart beat a bit faster, the section that offers me a jolt of theatrical joy and recognition, is the section falls, under this curatorial hand, under the category of Power Lunch. Power in business is of interest to some; power in early years of feminism is always of interest to me intellectually. Yet the area dedicated to theatrical and literary power hobnobbing at The Algonquin as hotel and meeting place (with a small side trip for me to a wall of caricature images from Sardi’s) is my surprise gift from this experience. Don’t you love it when that happens?
I have been in love with, and a little saddened by, the individual stories and artistic output of individuals who banded together from about 1919 through 1930 or so and named themselves (or were named by others) as The Algonquin Round Table. I’ve mused about my adoration elsewhere, and it recurs in my musings frequently. Frank Case, the hotel manager who attracted and protected the characters led by Alexander Woollcott and his pals, wrote his own memories of the place and its inhabitants. One of the best introductions is on the page crafted for an “American Masters” segment on the Round Table that includes the requisite name listing and introduction. “With members such as writers Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross (founder of THE NEW YORKER) and Robert Benchley; columnists Franklin Pierce Adams and Heywood Broun, and Broun’s wife Ruth Hale; critic Alexander Woollcott; comedian Harpo Marx; and playwrights George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, and Robert Sherwood, the Round Table embodied an era and changed forever the face of American humor.”
I’ve said in the past about this crowd: “Either these people amuse you or they don’t. They reduce me to a puddle of hysterics at times. I’ve been reading and writing about these folks for decades. They endlessly fascinate me. And this era of American cultural history — one of hope and cynicism and of “finding its voice” – just intrigues me.”
Find your own favorites among the treasures on display. You can focus on foodstuffs or you can focus on the stuff that happens now or then over meals, around food, in the midst of hotels or on sidewalks. All in this most American of American cities, in perhaps ones of its most iconic exhibit spaces. Pure delight.
And now I want a pretzel.
© Martha Wade Steketee (February 5, 2013)