Let’s Do Lunch

In the 1920s,  New York City housewives bought nuts from peanut vendors,  chopped them into a rough form of peanut butter and rendered the stuff spreadable with condensed milk or chili sauce. (My mother, nobody’s fool but someone whose idea of fixing dinner was “making” chicken salad by tossing pre-cut chicken with mayonnaise,) used to combine peanut butter with chili sauce and pile the result on a Ritz cracker for a quick hors d’oeuvre. Not sure if this makes her ahead of or behind her time.)

There is a lot to chew on at Lunch Hour NYC, the fun and very enlightening exhibition that chronicles 150 years of lunch history in the Big Apple, on view at the main branch of the New York Public Library until mid-February. The exhibit deals with many aspects of lunch including lunch at home, the power lunch, charitable lunch, quick lunch and the ethnic contributions to what, today, can be considered lunch.  Among the factoids:

  • Salad is a thing of the early 1900s when the first dieting craze hit.
  • The first Horn and Hardart Automat opened July 2, 1912 in Times Square.  Anyone remember how exciting it was to put money in and watch the little door spring open with your selection ready and waiting?


  • In the 1820s, oysters cost $.06 for “all you can eat.”  (This almost made me cry.)

Currently hovering in the $2.00 and up range

  • Schrafft’s, the haven for women at lunch, (although, towards the end of its run, the company installed cocktail bars  in an unsuccessful attempt to attract male diners), began as a candy company in Boston and vanished in the ‘70s. I adored Schrafft’s as did my grandmothers who almost always took me there for chicken salad sandwiches served by charming Irish waitresses.

On a more exalted outing, I went to The Forum of the Twelve Caesars, one of Joe Baum’s extravaganza restaurants. The exhibit has a Caesar’s menu from 1975 and menus from other bygone watering holes as well as a hot dog wagon, a display and explanation on the start of the school lunch program, cartoons from Sardi’s, (largely of people I never heard of),  a pretzel wagon, (note: pretzels were considered disreputable because of their association with saloons),  and a lot more. By all means go to the exhibit but skip lunch time because it will likely be crowded then and there’s a lot to, um, digest.

This recipe for Asian Chicken Salad includes a  two- way nod, one to Mark Bittman, my personal hero for his wonderful, never-fail recipes and easy-going attitude, and one to my mother, a non-cook who served great food.

Asian Chicken Salad for Four, Mark Bittman with some minor tweaks

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts (already cooked)

2 tablespoons soy sauce (low salt will work just fine)

1 1/2 tablespoons peanut butter or tahini (ground sesame paste)

1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil

1 clove garlic, peeled (I omit this)

A few drops of hot sauce, like Tabasco

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon rice or other vinegar

1 cucumber

1/4 cup minced cilantro leaves (or, for non-cilantro people like me, substitute ¼ cup chopped scallions)

The actual recipe starts by having you cook the chicken. I’m assuming you either roasted a chicken earlier in the week or bought a rotisserie bird.

In a blender, combine the remaining soy sauce with the peanut butter, sesame oil, garlic, hot sauce, salt, pepper, sugar and vinegar. Turn the blender on, and add hot water, a teaspoon at a time, until the mixture is smooth and creamy. (You will not need more than 3 teaspoons of water.)

Peel the cucumber (if it is waxed), slice it in half the long way, and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Cut it into 1/2-inch dice, and combine in a bowl with the sauce. Toss chicken with the sauce and cucumber. Taste, and adjust seasoning if necessary; then, serve hot or cold. Mr. B suggests garnishing with cilantro—I’d go with scallions.

Sit down to a lovely lunch. Toast the Public Library. If you’re feeling benevolent, donate to the library.


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