Whatever the amount might be, “as much food as one’s hand can hold” is how Samuel Johnson defined the luncheon in his 1755 dictionary entry.

Over the two centuries since, we’ve seen more than a handful of takes on lunch, and it’s the subject of a fantastic exhibit called “Lunch Hour NYC” running at the New York Public Library through February. From Dorothy Parker and the wits of the Algonquin Round Table to the three-cent school lunches of the early 20th Century, the exhibit’s packed with history, trivia, and plenty of appetizing slang.

For example, though colorful diner slang may have been more talked about than used, luncheonettes didn’t just serve coffee with a side of cream — they’d pour you a cup of mud and draw one on the side! A hamburger wasn’t just a hamburger — it was one on a pillow. Jello was known as nervous pudding. And for the gentiles, they’d dress one pig (serve a ham sandwich).

Street vendors are a New York staple, serving everything from roasted chestnuts to halal kebabs, but perhaps nothing’s more iconic than the hot dog cart.

The modern “power lunch” was a common sight in the 1950s at restaurants like The Four Seasons and The Twelve Caesars, but Sonia Henie and Tyron Power enjoyed them in 1937, too. In 1957, a filet mignon at Caesars’ went for $6.50!

The time constraints of Wall Street’s busy schedule spawned the testosterone-driven alternative to the ladies’ luncheons at La Cote Basque and The Colony.

And speaking of economics, nothing sums up lunch in the city like the slice of pizza. Since 1960, the price of a slice has adhered to what’s been called “The Pizza Principle“: at any given time, a plain slice is always equivalent to the cost of a subway ride!

Photo by Steven Depolo. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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