An early version of fast food, as many readers will recall, was the Automat. You didn’t wait for a waiter to wait on you. You took your nickels and quarters to a wall of little doors, popped the coins in where you saw what you wanted to eat, opened the little door, and then took your piece of pie or sandwich or whatever to a table where, more often than not, you dined with strangers.
I found this recent NY Times story by Sam Roberts charming.
“The Automat is being recreated at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue starting Friday for an exhibition on lunch. …
“The Automat, which first opened in Philadelphia, was democratic, because its tables accommodated customers from every class. It replaced the free lunch at saloons shuttered by Prohibition. The chrome and brass vending machines framed by Italian marble conveyed cleanliness, because the workers who prepared the food were invisible behind the spinning steel drums that fed the machines. …
“In a doctoral dissertation at Cornell University, Alec Tristin Shuldiner noted that compared with Philadelphians, New Yorkers wanted more sugar in their stewed tomatoes, favored seafood, except for oysters, craved clam chowder and chicken pies, and eschewed scrapple. …
“The playwright Neil Simon once wrote of his Automat memories, recalling that he learned more from his dining partners there than during three years at Princeton:
‘And the years went by and I turned from a day customer to a night patron, working on those first attempts at monologues and sketches at two in the morning, over steaming black coffee and fresh cheese Danish. And a voice from the stranger opposite me.
‘ “Where you from? California?”
‘ “No. I grew up in New York.”
‘ “Is that so? Where in New York?”
‘ “At this table.” ’ ”
But perhaps you’d like to read the whole thing.
Photograph: Berenice Abbott, NY Public Library