Welcome to “Eating History,” a series in which Jaya Saxena mines museum and library archives in search of vintage images, old menus, and other ephemera that offer a look into how New Yorkers used to dine. Follow her at @jayasax.
In 1991, the last Horn & Hardart Automat closed, taking with it a legacy of iconic design, innovation, and fast-food people actually wanted to eat. Aside from the novelty of automatically dispensed food, the Automat was known as an equalizer—a place where anyone of any means could eat at least something, whether it was a full meal of baked beans and beef stew, or a simple nickel coffee. And even if you didn’t have a cent to your name, you could always mix yourself a Depression Cocktail.
Carol Lowenstein of Bayside, Queens mentioned the concoction in a letter to the New York Times on the occasion of the Automat’s closure, and I’ve found a few mentions of it in comment sections and message boards dedicated to the chain’s history. Both water and ketchup were free at these establishments, and apparently it became a well-known trick to mix them together—either in the form of a drink or soup—for a free snack. It wasn’t much, but it was calories.
It was also, predictably, disgusting—a sour hint of tomato soup or juice that at best inspires memories of the real thing. But it’s a trick that can absolutely be replicated today. In Starbucks, you can mix milk with the cocoa powder, cinnamon, and nutmeg they put out for some fancy chocolate milk. McDonald’s gives out ketchup, salt and pepper, and sometimes mustard. You can even sit in a Five Guys and eat peanuts. Of course, the caveat is that you should try to avoid looking like you’re mooching, but perhaps in the Depression, H&H employees were more likely to turn a blind eye.
The Automat was also known for its comfort food. The Robert F. Byrnes Collection of Automat Memoribilia at the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library holds many recipes from the original Automat, made in batches in central cafeterias in New York and Philadelphia and driven to the city’s numerous locations.
Of course, 200 servings of baked beans isn’t practical for your average home cook, so in the 1960s (as the Automat began to fall on hard times with the rise of the modern fast-food restaurant), Horn & Hardart began advertising series of frozen dinners, along with from-scratch recipes for the same meals, promising that both would deliver the same taste customers had grown to love from H&H. Perhaps it was a way to assure people wary of instant dinners that they could still make these meals themselves, while also reminding them that, in a pinch, the frozen dinners were out there. This recipe was included in a Daily News ad from 1963.
Horn & Hardart Macaroni and Cheese
- ½ lb elbow macaroni
- 1 ¼ tsp butter
- 1 ¼ tsp flour
- ½ tsp salt
- dash white pepper
- dash red pepper
- 1 ¼ cup milk
- 2 tsp light cream
- 1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
- ½ cup canned tomatoes, diced
- ½ tsp sugar
Cook macaroni according to directions on the package. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Melt butter in top of double boiler. Blend flour, salt, white and red pepper in gradually. When smooth, add milk and cream, stirring constantly. Cook for a few minutes until it thickens. Add cheese and continue to head until it melts and the sauce looks smooth. Remove from heat. Add cooked macaroni to the sauce, Add sugar to tomatoes and add to sauce. Pour mixture into a buttered baking dish and bake until the surface is brown.
This is about as satisfying as macaroni and cheese can get. It’s not the cheesiest, but any cheese cravings are certainly satisfied without the leftover dairy-gut brick. The tomatoes add texture and acid, and there are enough crispy bits to keep it from being a pile of mush. I can’t imagine the rush of dropping a coin into the machine, opening a door, and pulling this out of the automat window.