Sweet Saturday Samples—The Automat

Welcome back to Sweet Saturday Samples! This week, I’m featuring a scene from Chapter 38 of my current WIP. It’s August 1937, and 21-year-old Vladlena Zyuganova and 20-year-old Valentina Kuchma, who was adopted and raised by Vladlena’s father, recently arrived in America. They’ve made good friends with 18-year-old Tatyana Koneva, one of the main characters, and her new friend Dusya Pokrovskaya (also 18), and are going out to eat on a Saturday.

The second and third pictures I took on the fourth floor of the New York State Museum. Sadly, it’s only an exhibit, not a working automat!

Horn & Hardart automat

“I’m starving,” Dúsya says. “Do you have a favorite restaurant nearby that we’d be welcome at?”

Tatyana fastens the respective sets of papers with paper clips and puts them in an empty, unmarked folder. “I really like to go to a Jewish deli about ten blocks from here, but they’re not open Saturdays.  I like a nearby Jewish bakery too, but they also won’t be open today.  Would you like to see an automat?  We don’t have them in Minnesota, so I like going to eat there whenever I get the chance.  I mean, it’s nice to sit down and have a full meal sometimes, but when I’m hungry or in a hurry, I want the fast, cheap food.”

“I can’t remember if we ever went out to eat in Minsk,” Valentína says. “All I know is home-cooked food and orphanage food.  And sometimes we went to the countryside to visit some friends with a small farm.  They introduced us to pumpkins.”

“What’s an automat?” Vladlena asks.

“It’s a cafeteria-type restaurant that serves you food when you deposit coins,” Tatyana explains. “I hope you’re open to trying American food.  We have lots of foods you probably never tasted back home, like macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach, peanut butter, hotdogs, and baked beans.”

“My parents hate American food,” Dúsya scoffs. “They think it’s not real food, and that I’m insane for eating anywhere that doesn’t serve Russian food.  It’s not like they eat real meals anyway.  It’s all a bunch of appetizers, no main courses.”

“I’ll try anything once, as long as it’s delicious,” Valentína says.

Tatyana leads them back downstairs, locks up the house, and starts her Ford Coupe, waving at some of the people on the street.  On their way to the Horn and Hardart’s automat on Broadway, Tatyana and Dúsya teach Vladlena and Valentína some new English words and phrases.

Tatyana finds a parking spot two blocks from the restaurant and smiles at the people admiring her car.  Even though she’s perfectly happy with Nikoláy, she’s glad to see some young men looking approvingly at her.  Her weekend makeup and knee-length skirts must make all the difference in attracting male attention.

“The best thing about an automat is that you don’t need to understand an English menu to order,” Tatyana says as they go inside. “You can see all the choices behind little glass windows.  If you don’t have nickels, I’ll give you some, and you don’t have to pay me back.”

Valentína and Vladlena follow Tatyana and Dúsya’s lead in getting trays and taking their place at the end of the line.  When they finally get to the head of the line, they stand and stare at all the vast choices presenting themselves behind the little glass doors.  It’s hard to imagine so much freely-available food all in one place, particularly since they’ve heard America is having money problems.

“What do you usually order?” Valentína asks.

“Oh, I like to get different things every time.  Too much of the same food gets boring.  Even at your favorite restaurant, it’s good to branch out and try different dishes besides the one you order most.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll go out to an ice-cream parlor nearby for more hearty desserts,” Dúsya promises. “The desserts here are nice, but not as nice as having a big banana split or chocolate-mint ice-cream soda.”

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Valentína digs out several nickels and puts her first one in a slot for macaroni and cheese.  On Tatyana’s instructions, she slowly turns the chrome knob, and the glass window clicks open.  Shortly after she takes her food, the circular tray inside rotates and a new serving appears, like magic.

“This is incredible!” Valentína exclaims. “It’s like science-fiction come to life!”

By the time they’ve made their way to a brightly-lacquered table, Valentína and Vladlena have both gotten macaroni and cheese, baked beans, creamed spinach, mashed potatoes, hot chocolate, and candied carrots, while Tatyana and Dúsya have selected lemonade, green beans, chocolate pudding, cornbread, apple pie, tomato soup, and roasted turnips.

“You might never want your native food ever again,” Tatyana says as she digs into her pudding. “I still like the Russian food my family makes, but it just seems so old-world next to modern American cuisine.”

“And just wait till you try Nathan’s hotdogs when we go on the big trip to Coney Island,” Dúsya says, spearing some beans. “And there’s an Italian food called pizza that I like eating on weekends.  My parents would be so scandalized if they knew how much I love non-Russian food and that I sometimes go to Italian restaurants.  I eat enough Russian food at home; why not branch out a little and explore new things?”

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6 comments on “Sweet Saturday Samples—The Automat

  1. What a wonderful excerpt! I’ve never heard of an automat – I’ll have to see if they had them here in the midwest. The girls’ reactions to American food sound a lot like my mom talking about adjusting to an American diet after she married Dad and moved here from Japan. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. Marsha Ward says:

    I used to see automats in downtown Phoenix when I was a girl, but of course, they’re long gone. Great piece, Carrie-Anne! Thanks for posting it.

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  3. I think you did a nice job creating atmosphere even without the pictures. That said, I love the pictures!

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  4. I enjoyed this and learning about automats. I’ve seen the machines around, but never a cafeteria or restaurant dedicated to them.

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  5. Back in the 1980’s I went to a hospital where they had a small automat. I bet it’s gone now. The pictures were super too.

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  6. I remember going to an automat in LA during the 1940s…I was quite impressed, I recall. Nice excerpt. Thanks for sharing…and for visiting my blog.

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