NYPL Exhibitions

Automat Food

Simplicity was the secret to the Automat’s excellent food. The ingredients were few and straightforward, with no cheap fillers or distractions: creamed spinach was made from fresh spinach and a classic white sauce; real butter and milk went into the mashed Idaho potatoes; and the custard recipe called only for milk, sugar, vanilla, and eggs. You could select a sandwich, macaroni and cheese, or lemon meringue pie from the machine or stand at the cafeteria steam table as a server carved slices of roast beef, ham, or corned beef to order. The orange juice was squeezed fresh (and discarded after two hours if nobody bought it), and if you asked for strawberry shortcake, it was assembled before your eyes from fresh berries, real whipped cream, and a biscuit baked that day. It was food in the best tradition of mainstream American home cooking, prepared as close as possible to the time it would be served, and at the height of the Automat’s success it reached hundreds of thousands of customers daily in locations all over the city.