January 21, 2016
This soup isn’t what it seems. Despite the sweet setup, it’s not homemade. It isn’t even store bought. This is Automat soup – that little box is the clue – and it cost a nickel in the coolest cafeteria America ever invented. New York’s great Automats were the delight of my childhood.
Here’s how one looked:
And this is a really early one, betraying its Gilded Age heritage:
The first American Automat was a Horn and Hardart, opened in Philadelphia in the late 1890s. New York’s first Automat opened in 1912, and proved so popular that by the thirties there were more than three dozen.
Here’s how it worked. You walked in and purchased a pocketful of change from the sole visible worker. Then you strolled around perusing the dozens of different dishes on offer. The food, at least in its heyday, was made from scratch; even the orange juice was freshly squeezed (and discarded after 2 hours). It was true-blue American fare: stews, sandwiches, cakes. I was particularly fond of the macaroni and cheese, and they made a mean lemon meringue pie. Everything looked so enticing that I’d walk around and around, pushing my tray along the rail, trying to decide what to eat.
Once I’d finally made up my mind I’d put the coins into the slot and watch the little glass door spring open. It seemed like magic to me: the workers who scurried around the kitchen, swiftly replacing food in the empty slots, were completely invisible.
Here’s a look behind the scenes:
The best of the Automats – like the big one on 42nd Street – had wildly inventive delivery systems. I always begged my parents to let me fetch their coffee from the huge brass contraption. You put in a nickel, turned a handle, and the hot dark liquid came pouring from the mouth of an extremely decorative dolphin.
New York’s last Automat closed in 1991, but it was a sad shadow of its former self. The once-fresh food had gone into decline and by then you needed so many coins to buy a simple sandwich that the thrill was gone.
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