The Battle of Brunch

by artfuldiner on June 18, 2020

in Breaking News, Opinion, Wining and Dining

Brunch 1According to the Oxford English Dictionary and Punch magazine, the origins of the word “Brunch” – a portmanteau of breakfast and lunch – may be traced to an 1895 article entitled “Brunch: A Plea” by Guy Beringer in the British magazine Hunter’s Weekly.

Instead of indulging in a typically English Sunday post church dinner, Mr. Beringer suggested a new meal, perhaps served around 12:00 noon, that would begin with tea or coffee and other breakfast staples before moving on to heavier fare. In addition, by eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch made life infinitely more pleasant for Saturday night revelers. “Brunch,” he noted, “is cheerful, sociable and inciting. It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”

While brunch is clearly a British invention, the concept really came to fruition after crossing the pond… first in New Orleans, where it was transformed into a luxurious, elegant meal, and then gaining a popular foothold at the Waldorf Astoria, Delmonico’s, and other fine New York City restaurants.

Originally conceived as an elaborate drawn-out affair for the wealthy, brunch soon became part of mainstream dining. By 1939, the New York Times was pontificating that Sunday had become a two-meal day. By the 1960s, brunch’s popularity was giving rise to specific cookbooks, and by the 1990s, brunching had become an integral part of Saturday dining as well.

According to an article in the Washington Post, “Data from Google Trends show that search interest in brunch has been rising steadily since 2004.” This steady rise also includes noticeable spikes in searches during the spring of each year, which happen to correspond to Easter and Mother’s Day, two Sunday celebrations that appear to be synonymous with brunch for many Americans.

There are a number of reasons why brunch has become so popular. For starters, the family breakfast just isn’t what it used to be. Fewer adults are eating breakfast; and younger generations – specifically millennials – are the likeliest to skip the morning meal… But there still remains a healthy desire for many breakfast foods, which is usually fulfilled via Sunday (or Saturday) brunch, when schedules aren’t quite so demanding.

Demographics also plays a part… The popularity of brunch is certainly being perpetuated by a shift in the places where people live. More and more Americans are residing in urban areas, where there are numerous restaurant choices and, therefore, brunch is more likely to be offered.

In addition, brunch is the one time during the week when you may enjoy a cocktail in the morning or the middle of the day without fear of tarnishing your heretofore unblemished reputation. Not only did brunch popularize – and legitimatize – occasional daytime imbibing, but it was also instrumental in introducing several new cocktails to the American public, including the Bloody Mary and Mimosa.

And while brunch is most popular among millennials – who tend to have a good deal of disposable time and income – it remains, however, a multi-generational meal. As writer Sabrina Plejdrup put it: “It’s something that the old generation can share with the young generation. There is no fancy technology that has to be used to enjoy an omelette. Food is timeless and is something that we all have in common; we all have to eat.”

Finally, with regard to its popularity, brunch is infinitely more than just another passing gastronomic fad. In a very real sense, the meal is a type of bonding ritual. “Restaurant brunches are more than just destinations,” writes Maura Judkis of the Washington Post, “they’re communal experiences.” With busy schedules, sometimes weekend mornings may well be the only times that groups of friends can get together… and brunch is the perfect catalyst that brings them together.

Brunch 2With apparently so much going for it, however, one could not help but wonder, as did Sadie Stein in her “Are We Done Hating Brunch?” article in The New Yorker, “How did an innocuous meal of eggs and breadstuffs become the focus of so much controversy?” How, indeed! While brunch has certainly collected its share of naysayers over the years, more recent criticisms have centered around not what brunch actually is, but rather what it supposedly represents.

“Brunch is a ritual that is corroding the soul of America,” wrote Alexander Nazaryan in the New York Daily News; “Brunch is decadence, served with a side of bacon”; “Brunch is national decline, slathered atop French Toast”; “Brunch is America sticking a maple-syrup slathered finger up at the concerns of the real world, concerns waiting right outside the window of the charming French bistro where you have decided to sequester yourself”; “Thousands of New Yorkers are ‘doing brunch,’ instead of doing something more worthwhile.”

Nazaryan’s article was published in 2012… But the eggs Benedict really hit the fan several years later, October 2014, when David Shaftel’s Op-Ed piece, “Brunch Is for Jerks,” appeared in the New York Times. Brunch, it seems to Shaftel, has become the downright nefarious visible symptom of the evils of gentrification that have taken place in his West Village neighborhood. More than that, “(brunch) has become a twice-weekly symbol of our culture’s increasing desire to reject adulthood. It’s about throwing out not only the established schedule but also the social conventions of our parents’ generation. It’s about reveling in the naughtiness of waking up late, having cocktails at breakfast and eggs all day.”

Brunch 4 - Trouble WithIn his book, The Trouble with Brunch – briefly quoted in Shaftel’s above-mentioned article – Shawn Micallef, a Canadian writer and academic, appears far more interested in the supposed battle between the classes than he does in the meal itself. The actual quoted material – “Brunchers treat servers uncharitably and servers, in turn, view them with contempt. Chefs bury the dregs of the week’s dinners under rich sauces, arranging them in curious combinations.” – is supported by no visible documentation whatsoever. Once again, as with a host of other writers, Micallef’s treatment of brunch is symptomatic rather than substantive.

Brendan Francis Newman, co-author of Brunch Is Hell, considers brunch emblematic of the larger problem of arrested development: “In college, you just roll into a dining hall and can get waffles any time of day. And that ethos seems to continue with a lot of young adults,” he writes. “It’s really about the permanent adolescence of the American human, and I’m not sure that’s great for us as a society.”

Brunch has, unfortunately, become the bearer of a veritable truckload of pseudo-emotional baggage, the all-too-convenient gastronomic whipping boy for almost any sociological/psychological ill – either real or imagined – that you would care to dream up. In short, it has become entirely too serious.

But… brunch is definitely not serious. That is precisely the point. “That’s its inherent genius,” notes Tim Teeman, Senior Editor of Daily Beast. “It’s gossip, giggling, silly time, fun… It is hardly a rejection of adulthood, rather a momentary escape from routine. And if it is a rejection of adulthood, the brutal truth is it only lasts two hours tops before the demands of the Big-A – bill paying, work stuff, relationship crises, cleaning your apartment, running errands – reassert themselves.” So, let’s take brunch for what it is and what it was originally meant to be, Teeman concludes: “delicious time, time to be savored that’s off the grid.”

Brunch 3 - Anthony BourdainMy permanent dining partner and I do have brunch occasionally, though certainly not on a weekly (or even monthly) basis. But, every once in a while, at the right place and time, when the stars are properly aligned, it’s a marvelous escape from the ordinary… and just plain delicious fun. That being said, however, I still entertain certain misgivings about it. Misgivings originally prompted by Anthony Bourdain’s less than appetizing revelations in his Kitchen Confidential. Namely that brunch is a dumping ground for the odd bits and scraps leftover from Friday and Saturday evenings… for fish past its prime preserved en vinaigrette… and for hollandaise sauce made from strained table butter that he describes as “a veritable petri-dish of biohazards.”

Then, of course, there’s the monetary matter. While brunch items are inexpensive to turn out, menu prices are inflated. Combine this with an often-obscene number of high-priced alcoholic beverages and that brunch tab can add up to a rather substantial sum. On the other hand, when compared to dinner at an even modestly upscale restaurant, brunch is still a relative bargain.

If you’re a confirmed brunch addict, more power to you. My advice is to forget all the sociological hocus-pocus and simply enjoy. Find a cozy haunt that fits your temperament and pocketbook and settle in for a leisurely Saturday/Sunday repast. Keeping Mr. Bourdain’s admonitions in mind, order with the circumspection of a minnow in a shark tank and all will be well. 😊

Bon Appétit!

Be Safe


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