Did you know that the lunch "hour" as we know it started here in New York City in the 19th Century? No, really! You don't have to take our word for it, either, you can see for yourself at Lunch Hour NYC, the fascinating, edifying, free (and air-conditioned) new exhibit at the New York Public Library's main branch. Curators have spent more than two years getting this filling bit of history cooking and it shows. A tasty treat for foodies and history buffs alike, the exhibit covers everything from the etymology of lunch through the first public school lunch programs (started here!), automats (including an actual one!), power lunches (coined here!), pastrami (basically invented here!), and of course, food carts (perfected here!).

The actual exhibit is organized mostly in chronological order, starting with the the word "lunch" in Samuel Johnson's dictionary ("As much food as one's hand can hold") and running all the way through to modern New York lunchers. And honestly, there is so much to chew on that we don't want to spoil it all for you (did we mention it is free?) so instead, let's just talk about three of the cool things to be found in the library:

  • Sushi Possibly Made Its American Debut Here Though conventional wisdom has it that sushi didn't start appearing in American restaurants until the early 1960s, and started in LA, that doesn't seem to be exactly the case. NYPL researchers digging through their menu archives found a menu from a short-lived restaurant in Midtown that most certainly appeared to serving the stuff, if slightly Americanized, in 1932! Sure, we guess sashimi is just a "filet of fresh fish."

  • Pastrami Started Here One of New York's great Deli delicacies, pastrami, was pretty much invented here by Jewish Romanian immigrants who brought with them to the Lower East Side a traditional technique for preserving geese ("Goose-pastrama"). Since beef was cheaper than the fowl they were used to, they started treating brisket with the same salts, seasonings and smoke and voila! 'pastrama,' later tweaked to 'pastrami,' was born.

  • Oh Yeah, And Metal Food Carts Started Here Too Food carts have a long, long history in the city (from oysters to pickles to hot dogs, people have been selling food on the street here for ages—there was even a book made of the cries of different NYC street peddlers!) but for a long time those carts were always wood. Until guys like Ed Beller came around and realized they could make them out of stainless steel—while also making them more hygenic. Here, let's let him tell the story:

And that's so not all. We haven't even gotten to automats, power lunches, the $.03 school lunch, the birth of the theme restaurant, "free lunches," the many eateries of old Times Square—but don't worry, we'll be revisiting this topic soon. Meanwhile, the show runs through February 17, 2013.