NYPL Exhibitions

Lunch at Home

In 1942 the New York newspaper PM asked two families, the Dalys of the Bronx and the Ledermans of Brooklyn, to shop and eat for one week according to economical menus designed by the paper’s food editor. (“Purpose: To demonstrate our guiding principle that food can be attractive, good and good for you on any income.”) The Dalys followed the medium-cost menus ($5 per person weekly), and the Ledermans the low-cost menus ($3 per person).

The medium-cost dinners included steak and halibut, while the low-cost dinners featured liver and codfish cakes. Their lunches, however, had no such clearly defined identities. One family had vegetable soup, the other tomato; one ate lettuce sandwiches, the other peanut butter. On most days it would have been impossible to guess the budget difference between these families based on what they were assigned for lunch.

Like most newspapers at the time, PM promoted mainstream eating habits, and its menus rarely took into account social or cultural differences. But in the case of lunch, the newspaper may have been right on target. Lunch at home exists in a culinary world of its own. Even families that make a point of maintaining ethnic traditions at dinner often combine new ways with old at lunchtime. Convenience tends to be mandatory, but nearly everything else about it is negotiable. By the 1940s PM’s version of lunch—canned soup, a sandwich made from anything at hand—was turning up in households across the city that had little else in common.