Monday, May 21, 2007
Automat for the People
Think of it: a Cabinet of wonderful food.
I know, I know, it's a weird idea, that an automat might be considered a kind of wunderkammer. The idea has such strong identifications, depending on your generation. For younger people, who never went to one of the old automats, it's kind of cool. So much so that a new company called BAMN! is starting a trend (?) by bringing automats back - in, of course, a more modern, hip way.
For those of the middle generations, that is to say, people born 40 to 60 years ago, the memories of automats are likely to be ones of bad food, glaring lights and chillingly impersonal decor.
However, this was probably due to the things being on the wane: the food was less fresh, there being less turnover, and it being the 1950's and 1960's, brutal modernism was all the rage. Not, unfortunately, designed to make you want to stick around.
Those people who are elders now, people born early enough to recall the Depression and World War II, will have a different impression entirely. To those people, the Horn & Hardart chain, which at its height served 800,000 people a day, was a place to go to get in out of the cold, a place where coffee was good and cheap and you could get hot, fresh, handmade food for literally pennies, without having to deal with a waiter.
...Perhaps people in the early part of last century were less picky and more hungry than they were later on. Or perhaps labor was cheaper and behind those banks of little doors were real cooks making real food (as opposed to corporate employees paid minimum wage to churn out prepackaged dross). It's hard to say.
I have to admit to a fascination with automats. I went to one once, when I was a little kid, and I never forgot it. There was something weird and magical about these little compartments of food, food that replaced itself. You could see the people behind there, but they were this vague shape, and it was like a separate little world back there. As far as I was concerned, the glimpses of people I saw lurking back there were simply the inhabitants of that world. The little compartments worked by themselves, replacing food like the tables in a Harry Potter feast.
You can see why Americans were so taken with the concept: peek in the little windows, put in your nickel, open the door and it's yours. All they needed were little Surprise Drawers down at the bottom which furnished you with an unknown treat, or secret "free" compartments, in which you could have the contents if you could find the hidden door, to complete the experience of foraging in some kind of crazy Museum of Food (both these images, by the way, were some of the many that came into my dreams for years after my visit to the automat).
The Smithsonian has a 35-foot section of the original 1902 Horn & Hardart automat in Philadelphia, which is " beautifully ornate with its mirrors, marble and marquetry" and I'm sure is about as close to a Cabinet of Curious Food as you can get.
The question is, will the BAMN automats have what it takes? Or will they be simply updated vending machines? I'd like to see an automat with paneling, plush chairs and a secretive atmosphere. I don't mind the peculiar adventure of rummaging in little boxes and cubbies and drawers for my food, as long as it's good and fresh. In fact, I think I'd kind of like it - especially if they came on plates, with cutlery, and the long banks of compartments were beautifully made.