Monday, 28 March 2011

Review: Automat

The Automat: The History, Recipes, and Allure of Horn & Hardart's Masterpiece by Lorraine B Diehl & Marrianne Hardart (2002)

I've always had a vivid memory of having as a child eaten in one of New York City's famous Automats–probably while passing through with my parents on the way to somewhere else.  All I can remember is a very antiseptic art deco cafeteria with banks of glass boxes that you opened with coins.  I think that the image stuck with me because I imagined that the huge banks of vending machines actually prepared the food as well as sold it.  The Automat seemed to me a perfect example of how the future would look: A world of clean lines, efficiency, and machines carrying out their tasks for man to enjoy.

I would have been bitterly disappointed to discover that there was no complicated banks of machinery behind the enamel and chrome facade.  There was some advanced technology and some very clever invention at work, but it was miles away in a central commissary filled with hard-working human beings who produced the food for scores of restaurants around town. 

The Automat: The History, Recipes, and Allure of Horn & Hardart's Masterpiece tells the history of the Horn and Hardart restaurant empire's rise from obscure beginnings as a Philadelphia lunchroom in 1883 run by two men:  One a restaurant enthusiast with a bit of capital, but no knowledge of the business, and a German immigrant who had years of restaurant experience and the knowledge of how to make a good cup of coffee as his only assets.  Together, they developed a small chain of lunchrooms dedicated to providing good food at very low prices in genteel surroundings meant to attract female clientele.  Then around the turn of the 20th century they added a new twist by installing their first vending machine from Germany that allowed customers to select their own food for the drop of a nickel.  Behind this, Horn and Hardart developed the central commissary that allowed them to produce dishes at low cost and with uniform quality.  All the staff at the restaurant had to do was keep the food hot, the machines stocked, and the steam tables manned.

Relying on a menu with a full range of what today is regarded as "sit down" food, the Automats became a fixture of Philadelphia and New York.  Their decor was upmarket, modern, and spotlessly clean while their fare was good, cheap, and fast.  The cheap part became increasingly important as the Automats became a haven of food and comfort for people struggling through the depths of the Great Depression.

Automat is not an exhaustive history.  It's more of a nostalgia piece about a fondly remembered restaurant chain that in recent decades succumbed to changes in public taste, rising prices, the changing demographics of the cities, and the rise of fast food franchises.  An intermix of interviews, remembrances, recipes, and images that are far too small, Automat invokes the feel of a time when there was a place where a child could have the thrill of getting its own piece of pie from a magic machine, a struggling actress could it well for very little, and where even the unemployed could nurse a cup of coffee for a few hours. 

The Automat turned out to be a paradoxical place.  Hollywood and popular song spread its fame around the world, yet it was really only a local chain.  It was the height of modernity in its time, but became a symbol of nostalgia, and it's very innovation made it impossible for it to compete in the modern world.

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