Lunch in the Big Apple, Part 1

The New York Public Library has an exhibition right now that I would love to see. Lunch Hour NYC offers a glimpse at lunch in the city over the past 150 years. What an interesting idea.

During America’s colonial times, lunch was considered a snack that one might have at any time of the day, with dinner being the main meal at the middle of the day. With the onset of industrialization and in keeping up with the blossoming city, New Yorkers quickly adapted their meals at the behest of their employers to mimic what we now know as lunch.

Check out this video the NYPL put together on Lunch Hour NYC:

Pretty neat! And here is the original maker of those stainless steel hot dog stands that the Big Apple has all over its streets: Edward Beller:

“A hot dog comes out of boiling water, what can be so bad about it? It tastes so good.” Wise words from Mr. Beller? Perhaps, except maybe for our vegetarian and vegan friends.

how much deli food items cost, if priced fairly, in 1930

With so many immigrant communities throughout the city, is it any wonder that New York’s array of lunch items is so diverse? The following snip-its offer some insight into how several cultural foods have entered the smorgasbord that is NYC.

  • Virginia’s Thomas Downing became a wealthy man selling raw, fried and stewed oysters, as well as poached oyster-stuffed turkey. A free black born in 1791, Downing was so successful his oysters were shipped to Paris and London, and he once received a gold chronometer watch from Queen Victoria. In 1842 Downing catered Charles Dickens’ official welcome to NYC.
  • Originally sold from baskets or piled on sticks, pretzels were only a penny up until the 1920s. In 1923 pretzel sellers were looked down on and a reporter with the Times once wrote: “It was not fitting that a bank president should be seen munching a pretzel.”
  • Gennaro Lombardi opened the first New York pizzeria in 1905, and since then the city has been known for its thin crust, coal-fired oven-baked pizza. The pie became a lunch item when it was first sold by the slice in East Harlem’s Patsy’s, opened by Patsy Lancieri.
  • The birthplace of the pastrami you and I enjoy today is Little Romania in lower Manhattan. It evolved from a goose preserving technique that the local Jewish immigrants had brought with them, but was easily adapted for beef, which was less expensive.
  • Immigrants from Germany opened the city’s first delis in the mid-19th century, although the different groups of immigrants stocked their deli’s with foods that they were culturally accustomed to.
  • Not for the timid souls, hot dogs were generally avoided before the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act, but they were readily consumed in New York.  By 1915, Coney Island’s hot dog spot Nathan’s Famous was opened.
  • Chinese takeout became an instant favorite for city dwellers; in a 1903 article, the New York Tribune reported, “Few Bohemian gatherings are complete without a pail of chop suey, brought, fresh and hot, from Chinatown.” New Yorkers had to wait until 1976 though, to have the popular cuisine delivered to their homes.
  • Although its first introduction to New York is uncertain, sushi became available city-wide by the 1960s, after first appearing on a menu in 1932. Only after the American-invented inside-out roll, which hides the seaweed in the rice, debuted in Los Angeles, did sushi in NYC move away from its traditional form.
  • The most recent addition to the Big Apple’s eclectic food offerings, the Jamaican beef patty finally arrived only after the Jamaican immigrant communities grew in the 1960s and 1970s. Dough-wrapped spicy beef, that is baked and is served inside a roll, the Jamaican beef patty, that have also been made with chicken and vegetarian fillings, were deemed “the best portable lunch in the world,” by Gourmet magazine.


Lunch Hour NYC.” New York Public Library. Retrieved 18 July 2012.