Contributed by Nick O.

Lunch used to be a snack that you could eat any time of the day. Dinner was your midday meal. But when America left the farms and moved into the cities, dinner was moved to after-work and lunch became the meal that it is today. The New York City Public Library is hosting an exhibit celebrating the birth of lunch: Lunch Hour NYC.

Lunch Hour NYC looks back on the past century of New York City lunches and how they have changed over time.  I had no idea how many controversies surrounded eating lunch.

One star of the exhibit is Father Divine.  A pastor in NYC during the depression, he created the Peace Mission Movement.  He preached to thousands a radical message for the time: racial equality and personal empowerment.  His mission did not just dispense food to the hungry; they expanded the mission into a co-operative business, opening restaurants, shops and hotels and keeping prices low and affordable. All of his religious services started with lavish banquets of duck, spare ribs, fruit salad, chocolate cake and other gourmet foods, all served on china plates with silverware.  Followers paid 10 or 15 cents if they could afford it, otherwise it was free.  He was able to feed thousands of people during one of the lowest economic periods in the country.

Women also had to fight for their rights to eat.  Unless a woman was accompanied by a male companion, she was not allowed to eat at the prestigious restaurants where men met for power lunches.  Jane Cunningham Croly was an experienced editor and published journalist but was denied access to the Press Club.  She formed a group called Sorosis Club for women and started hosting lunches at Delmonico’s. Similar groups popped up in the East Village. But the ability for women to eat lunch on their own was championed and won by Betty Friedan after she staged a sit-in at The Plaza. Betty showed up in sunglasses as her husband tried to dissuade her from starting the protest by giving her a black eye. A group of women entered The Plaza and sat down. No one would serve them and after an hour, a group of waiters came over and carried their table away.

School lunches also started in New York City.  In the 1910’s a movement was started to feed children in schools as people believed it was impossible to learn on an empty stomach.  The lunches were simple and fresh.  A lunch tray with facts about the school lunch movement was displayed on a picnic table.

Among the many interesting details, this fact was fascinating: In 1917, 21% of school children were estimated to be underfed; today in 2012, that same percentage of school children is estimated to be obese.

I was impressed by the exhibit and how much information I learned.  The displays contained old recipe books and the origins of hot dog carts, pretzel vendors and pickle salesmen.

Lunch Hour NYC is a free exhibit and will be held until February 17, 2013.

Do you have any exhibits worth seeing where you are?  We invite you to share your ideas in the comment box below.