Authors: nytimes Diners Journal
It is a century since the first Automat opened in New York, and 21 years since the chain closed in Manhattan, but people still crave the recipes for its food served up from little glass doors at the drop of a few coins.
Indeed, there is “an Automat recipe cult,” said Laura Shapiro, who is co-curator, with Rebecca Federman, of the current “Lunch Hour NYC” exhibition at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. The exhibit features the Horn & Hardart Automats, which began in Philadelphia and purveyed ready-made lunches to workers of all classes. The food was so tasty and fresh — there was chicken pot pie, for instance, and baked beans — that people yearned to recreate the dishes at home. Since the show opened in June, some 500,000 free Automat recipes have been snapped up by visitors.
“Those recipes evoke people’s memories more than anything else” in the show, Ms. Federman said.
The exhibition features the coin-operated glass, brass and chrome universe of the Automats, those classic, marble-sheathed cafeterias whose claim to mechanical fame centered on rows of little vending windows that popped open when enough money was inserted. In their heyday, the hugely popular Art Deco restaurants served 800,000 people a day. The exhibition, which will be on view through Feb. 17, offers five classic recipes, for baked beans, baked macaroni and cheese, burgundy sauce with beef and noodles, creamed spinach and pumpkin pie. Two of the recipes are reprinted below.
For those who cook these venerable recipes at home, “there is an emotional connection,” said Arthur Schwartz, the author, broadcaster and cooking teacher. Not only is he a collector of the Horn & Hardart recipes — he included some in his 2004 cookbook, “New York City Food” — but on Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Schwartz, who lives in Brooklyn, unexpectedly welcomed five dinner guests who sought refuge when they couldn’t return to their homes in Manhattan.
“I made the largest macaroni and cheese I’ve ever made,” working from the Automat’s recipe, he said, adding, “That mac and cheese served as the ultimate comfort food.”
The Automat food was “good and wholesome and had an all-American, home-economist feeling about it,” said Mimi Sheraton, a former dining critic for The New York Times.
But is the cult simply about nostalgia, or was there something about that menu? “The food was front and center,” said Ms. Shapiro, adding that the original menu concept – fresh food — went back to the future. “It was totally standardized real food – as if fast-food restaurants offered real food instead of packaged, plastic junk.”
She explained, “If the Automat menu said strawberry shortcake, you got a home-style biscuit baked that day, fresh strawberries and real whipped cream.”
Horn & Hardart recipes are among the most requested on the Internet because “the Automats were very important to a lot of people in the Northeast,” said Uncle Phaedrus, the nom de Web of a veteran blogger. He has tracked down long-sought flavors for more than 12 years on the recipe-finding Web site Ask Uncle Phaedrus, which averages 10,000 visits per day, he said in an e-mail interview. He has always declined to reveal his real name because Uncle Phaedrus is a “character I created for the Web site over a decade ago, and it seems improper to give away his secret identity.”
At the Public Library exhibition in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, there is an 11-foot wall of 32 Automat windows where the free recipes are available.
The Automat recipes were a closely guarded secret until the 1960s, when the company published a select few in newspaper advertisements to promote a line of frozen foods. Ms. Federman and Ms. Shapiro discovered them in their research and offered them in the show.
The Uncle Phaedrus Web site links to 10 recipes. In addition, 13 recipes were offered in the 2002 book “The Automat” by Lorraine B. Diehl and Marianne Hardart, a history of the chain written from the Hardart family archives. But those recipes were tested – and adapted — by a nutritionist credited in the book.
In Ms. Federman’s opinion, the library exhibition’s recipes “are as close to the Holy Grail as you can find,” she said.
Are you an Automat cultist – and do you have lost recipes in your files? Would you share them and your reminiscences of the menu at the Automat?
- 1/2 pound pea beans
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 2 strips raw bacon, diced
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 1/2 tablespoons dry mustard
- 1/8 teaspoon red pepper
- 1/3 cup molasses
- 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup tomato juice
- 1 cup water
- Soak the beans overnight. Using the same water, boil, reduce heat and simmer until tender, about 30 minutes longer.
- Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Add all other ingredients to beans. Pour into a baking pot or pan.
- Bake uncovered about 4 hours or longer. If necessary, add boiling water to prevent from drying.
Source: The New York Public Library
- 1/4 pound elbow macaroni
- 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
- 1 1/2 tablespoons flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Dash white pepper
- Dash red pepper
- 1 1/2 cups milk
- 2 tablespoons light cream
- 1 cup Cheddar cheese, shredded
- 1/2 cup canned tomatoes, diced
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- Cook macaroni according to directions on the package. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Melt butter in the top of a double boiler. Blend flour, salt and white and red pepper in gradually. When smooth, add milk and cream, stirring constantly. Cook for a few minutes until it thickens.
- Add cheese and continue to heat until it melts and the sauce looks smooth. Remove from heat. Add cooked macaroni to the sauce. Add sugar to the tomatoes and add to the sauce.
- Pour mixture into a buttered baking dish and bake until the surface browns.
Source: The New York Public Library