“Lunch Hour” is one of the most inventively curated, gorgeous, surprising, and witty exhibitions I’ve had the pleasure of exploring. It covers a huge amount of material lightheartedly and is a great exercise in cultural history, something I’m thinking a great deal about at the moment – what it is, exactly, and how to write or tell it well. The exhibition’s theme tracks major cultural changes throughout the twentieth century, in New York and beyond, as the rhythm of the workday changed, along with the place and nature of food within it.
We start at the oyster cart, a reminder of how cheap and plentiful this delicacy once was in the city, and of the fact that we should all read Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster. The exhibition moves from cheap street food to show the development of more permanent places to stop for lunch, focusing on the automat, which is really the centerpiece of the exhibition. There’s a screen showing footage of mid-century movie scenes set in these once-iconic institutions, and a recreation of the glowing service hatches:
On another wall, you can reach inside the little doors and pull out recipes from Horn & Hardart, the company that dominated the automat market, and managed to deliver cooked meals made with fresh ingredients all across the city, until food prices went up and quality decreased in response. Of course, I picked them all up: macaroni & cheese, burgundy sauce with beef and noodles, creamed spinach, baked beans, pumpkin pie.
After the fun of the automat, there were other sections covering the food stories and memories of immigrants, and their contributions to New York’s lunch offerings, especially all the grab-and-go variations, from empanadas to patties to pizza slices. A rather sad little pink kitchen, with a table and a refrigerator set into the wall, displayed a proliferation of diet books and home scales, testament to the evolution of lunch at home for women from necessary work-break to carefully measured, cottage-cheese-based “reducing” chore, an island in a day of housekeeping.
Two other kinds of lunch were juxtaposed, at opposite ends of the social spectrum – the charitable lunch for poor schoolchildren, and the “power lunch,” at Delmonico’s or Sardi’s or the Algonquin. Here again, the inventiveness of the exhibition came through – a timeline of the changing focus of city schools (from malnourishment to obesity) was tracked on brown lunch-trays:
It turns out that there’s a lot to learn about lunch, and there’s a poetry to it as well. A little volume of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems is a reminder not to overlook even those parts of our day that look the most ordinary.
A STEP AWAY FROM THEM It's my lunch hour, so I go for a walk among the hum-colored cabs. First, down the sidewalk where laborers feed their dirty glistening torsos sandwiches and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets on. They protect them from falling bricks, I guess. Then onto the avenue where skirts are flipping above heels and blow up over grates. The sun is hot, but the cabs stir up the air. I look at bargains in wristwatches. There are cats playing in sawdust. On to Times Square, where the sign blows smoke over my head, and higher the waterfall pours lightly. A Negro stands in a doorway with a toothpick, languorously agitating. A blonde chorus girl clicks: he smiles and rubs his chin. Everything suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of a Thursday. Neon in daylight is a great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would write, as are light bulbs in daylight. I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET'S CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of Federico Fellini, è bell' attrice. And chocolate malted. A lady in foxes on such a day puts her poodle in a cab. There are several Puerto Ricans on the avenue today, which makes it beautiful and warm. First Bunny died, then John Latouche, then Jackson Pollock. But is the earth as full as life was full, of them? And one has eaten and one walks, past the magazines with nudes and the posters for BULLFIGHT and the Manhattan Storage Warehouse, which they'll soon tear down. I used to think they had the Armory Show there. A glass of papaya juice and back to work. My heart is in my pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.
From Lunch Poems. Copyright © 1964 by Frank O’Hara. City Lights Books (via www.frankohara.org)