What is brunch, anyway? (and other thoughts about the stuff-your-face weekend ritual)

What is brunch, anyway? (and other thoughts about the stuff-your-face weekend ritual)

The brunch scene at Rose and Sons on Dupont Street (Image: Emma McIntyre)

Toronto writer Shawn Micallef believes we should all be thinking a lot more about brunch. His new book, The Trouble With Brunch, was published last month by Coach House Books; it’s part-autobiography, part-history, and part-dissertation, all with the aim of examining the relationship between the weekend ritual and shifting attitudes toward class and leisure. Here’s an excerpt.

In 1895, the English writer Guy Beringer published an essay titled “Brunch: A Plea” in a now-obscure periodical called Hunter’s Weekly. Nearly a hundred and twenty years later, the vision for a new meal that he proposed is as real now as a traditional Sunday roast was in his time. Little can be gleaned about Beringer himself—all searches for further information circle back only to this essay. In a 1998 New York Times article, “At Brunch, the More Bizarre the Better,” author William Grimes attributed the invention of brunch to Beringer and quoted a few passages from the original essay: “Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting. It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”

Just like we do today, Beringer saw the link between brunch and the hangover, writing that having the first meal later in the day on Sunday would make life easier on “Saturday-night carousers.” Beringer differentiated brunch from those English roasts, calling the latter “a post church ordeal of heavy meats and savory pies” while brunch, served around noon, would instead begin with tea or coffee, marmalade and other breakfast fixtures, before moving on to heavier fare. “More than a century later, Beringer’s template for brunch remains as valid as the day it was created, perhaps because, in drafting his culinary declaration of independence, he was not overly specific about what dishes should be served,” wrote Grimes. “He demanded ‘everything good, plenty of it, variety and selection.’ In a postscript, he suggested that beer and whisky could be served instead of coffee and tea, laying down a precedent for the mimosa, the Bloody Mary and the screwdriver.” Satisfaction, a little gluttony and a buzz—the familiar components of most brunches served today.

For someone so prescient, even visionary, Beringer is a surprisingly obscure figure. Farha Ternikar hasn’t been able to find out any more about him. Ternikar’s a professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, and author of the recent Brunch: A History. Even a call to the British Library didn’t help: “They have a copy of that Hunter’s Weekly,” she tells me, “but they won’t let anyone touch it because it’s so rare.” Ternikar’s had more luck with brunch research closer to home. “American historians and academics often cite New York, Chicago and New Orleans as the first big brunch cities in the United States,” she says. “New York City because there’s anecdotal evidence of Emily Post brunching at Delmonico’s in the 1920s. New Orleans had a very early brunch culture, where it was almost like a second breakfast. And there’s evidence that in the jazz era Chicago had early brunches as well.” By the 1950s, she says, Americans began to have brunches at home and then, by the 1970s and 1980s, with the rise of conspicuous consumption, brunch began to appear at popular hotels, diners and franchise restaurants. “We get these real brunch scenes,” she says, “specifically in large urban centres like Toronto, London, New York and Chicago. And, of course, Portland as well.” (Portlandia, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s affectionate sketch comedy send-up of the Oregon city’s strenuously twee, often self-enamoured culture, dedicated the season finale of its second season to a satire of Portland’s absurd brunch milieu.)

Ternikar didn’t initially set out to write a book about brunch. Her initial interest, developed during a sabbatical two years ago, was in how food and identity intersect, especially with regards to immigrant populations, as food is a gateway to multiculturalism, though limited as it is. Indeed, in a city like Toronto that publicly and officially prides itself on its multiculturalism, that multiculturalism often manifests itself only in the city’s dizzyingly eclectic culinary landscape. For many “white” North Americans, so-called ethnic cuisine can provide a safe, pseudo-relationship through which one can experience “exotic” cultures without any meaningful, deep interaction with those cultures. How many times have we seen politicians, looking for instant connections to a particular ethnic community, use that community’s restaurants or cultural events as a convenient backdrop? (The cheeky name of the Toronto-based web magazine Ethnic Aisle, which wittily explores ethnicity and race throughout the city and country, alludes to a related ghettoization in grocery stores.)

Ternikar grew up in Tampa, Florida, a mid-sized city a little bigger than my hometown of Windsor, though lacking its industrial base. When she left for graduate school in Chicago, which had and continues to have an extensive brunch scene, she noticed the same difference I did between brunch back home and brunch in her new city. In Tampa and Windsor, brunch was held in hotels and banquet halls, both of which maintained a faded, old-school glamour, big rooms that conjured up images of Friars Club roasts and boozy Dean Martin types. They connoted fancy. Meanwhile, in Chicago and Toronto, new and trendy brunch spots were decorated in ways that suggested the exact opposite: industrial brick walls, mismatched furniture and what seemed like a conscious rejection of standardization and mass production. The quirky and unique were prized, even if those quirks could be found, as I’ve discovered, in similar restaurants around the world.

There was also a strange desire to be in environments that seemed older and alluded to a working-class life, sans the smell of sweat—turn-of-the-century factories with that exposed brick and reclaimed wood tables, augmented perhaps with an industrial implement or two hung on a wall. In Windsor (and, I imagine, in Tampa), when an occasion rolled around that was special enough to celebrate with brunch, you wanted to celebrate in style, in an atmosphere a bit more luxurious than what you were used to. You didn’t want to spend your off-hours in a place that resembled, no matter how fancifully, the factory or warehouse you slaved in during the day.

“In smaller and working-class cities, people still go to brunch at the nicest place they can afford, whether it’s the Sheraton or IHOP,” Ternikar says. “In bigger urban centres, brunch is a way to seem distinct or cool or hip.” For some people, Ternikar points out, where they eat signals who they are or who they want to be, and that status and distinction is linked to that which is difficult to access. So brunches with ninety-minute waits or where you have to get reservations in advance offer us more status. It’s simple economics: scarcity makes something more valuable. The places that are easier to access, like breakfast at McDonald’s or brunch at the Hilton or golf clubs that are designed for efficiency, comfort and effortlessness have little status. At Chicago’s Alinea, a favourite example of Ternikar’s and a restaurant named the best in the United States by Gourmet in 2006, you have to make reservations six weeks ahead.

Restaurant owners, like nightclub owners and H&M, know the value of exclusivity and scarcity. Just as your taste in clothes, music and hobbies shapes your identity, so too can your affection (or distaste) for particular kinds of brunch—where you eat and what you eat while you’re there—signal what kind of person you are. Status—our sense of being cool, fitting in and feeling content, all of which contribute to our identity—is connected to the things we consume because they are often our most visible and conspicuous personal choices.

Beloved, once-working-class urban areas like Toronto’s Kensington Market, New York’s Lower East Side and Williamsburg, or London’s Hackney have been transformed into places that maintain the general aesthetic of their working-class roots but perform a much more complicated role in the lifestyle of middle-class people. There’s a reason so many brunch places have such a distinctly rough-edged aesthetic: plain wooden chairs, worn wood reclaimed from barns, the substantial bill for the experience tucked into an old mason jar: they are all artifacts of the real. They lend an experience that’s highly performative, artificial and under a utilitarian sheen of authenticity. They say, This is a real experience, connected and rooted, not concocted. Physicality is important; it provides connections to people who did things and to actual objects that age and alter. It’s a strange kind of ju-jitsu—a rejection of the trappings of middle-class life in favour of a more expensive and cleaner simulation of working-class life.

In the 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class, American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen goes into detail about the desirability of a hand-wrought spoon, just as serviceable as one made by the machines of his day, but the effort put into it makes the spoon beautiful and “some one-hundred times more valuable” than a more common spoon. “The case of the spoon is typical,” he writes. “The superior gratification derived from the use and contemplation of costly and supposed beautiful products is, commonly, in great measure a gratification of our sense of costliness masquerading under the name of beauty. Our higher appreciation of the superior article is an appreciation of its superior honorific character.”

Marks of honorific costliness can mean beauty, even if an aesthetic analysis suggests they aren’t beautiful, and possibly are ugly, just as time wasted at brunch can be viewed as time well-spent. Patchwork Gucci sweaters from the 1980s, the kind Bill Cosby had a penchant for, and other contemporary couture items routinely found on racks at high-end boutiques and department stores that have no relation to the purchasers’ personal style, but are consumed because they are authentically expensive, are part of a tautology that drives people to buy things they don’t look good in, and waste time they don’t have.

Thinking about the industrial brunch aesthetic, keeping in mind the vague and broad definition of what the middle class is, it’s as if the rougher working-class markers are being appropriated as a kind of shared identity because the working class is, historically, so rooted to place, physical products and manual labour, all quite real things. The working class also has an identity with an immediate sense of solidarity with other working-class people, so this aesthetic suggests being part of something bigger. The creative class does so much work that is ephemeral, on computers and via email, in surroundings that don’t seem like work at all and spread across so many industries, there is no common, easily recognizable look to the work. An open laptop may come close, but is that work or is that Facebook time? The incredible veneration of older working-class trappings suggests in the absence of a consciousness of its own, this class has appropriated another’s, though the salt of the earth does not actually get on one’s shoes.

Another demonstrative thrust of Veblen’s theory with regards to brunch is the conspicuous consumption of goods, a leisure-class requirement. Veblen immediately points to a dietary connection, where status is “best seen in the use of intoxicating beverages and narcotics,” he writes. “If these articles of consumption are costly, they are felt to be noble and honorific.” A mark of honour today is the risky thrill of badass bacon.

“Brunch is a reason for bad behaviour,” Ternikar tells me. “If you look at the history of brunch, it was the one time no one will judge you if you order an alcoholic beverage before noon and it’s the time no one will judge if you want to have bacon and cake at eleven o’clock with your favourite cocktail.” Behaviours that are considered vice, for Veblen, are marks of superior status and “become virtues and command the deference of the community,” a kind of physical endurance like sport, but where you get less healthy instead of fitter, though your esteem among others rises. Think of a socially acceptable and more couth version of John Belushi’s Bluto from the film Animal House. “Drunkenness and other pathological consequences of the free use of stimulants therefore tend in their turn to become honorific, as being a mark, at the second remove, of the superior status of those who are able to afford the indulgence,” writes Veblen. “Infirmities induced by over indulgence are among some peoples freely recognised as manly attributes. It has even happened that the name for certain diseased conditions of the body arising from such an origin has passed into every speech as a synonym for ‘noble’ or ‘gentle.'” Veblen isn’t specific about which disease, but this notion is reminiscent of how gout was considered the “the disease of kings and the king of diseases,” and a sign of living the good life. T-shirts announcing one’s cholesterol count might sell well outside the hottest brunch spots.

Food has become a conspicuously rebellious act. We’ve seen a rise of extreme eating that is closely associated with brunch in the form of obsessively meaty charcuterie restaurants, restaurants that flout safety regulations by serving raw pork and, of course, all of that bacon. Bacon is a celebrated, almost cigarette-like food that is sexy and deadly but now part of the ritual intake of grease on a Sunday morning to ease a hangover, just like having a smoke and a coffee once were. The unhealthiness of the food is a value-added factor in the experience, another bit of real. The unhealthier the food, the greater the opportunity to boast of said activity on social media. When the cracks in the glass bottom of class sensibility are out of view, do we need to manufacture risk to have a foil to play against?

Or course, playful risk like this comes in working-class forms too—a Toronto greasy-spoon dive called Dangerous Dan’s serves a burger called “the Big Kevorkian,” named after the assisted-suicide crusader—but there’s something more forthright about other kinds of bad-for-you food rituals. Dangerous is, well, dangerous: the risks are clear and aren’t cloaked in “authentic” or “artisanal” euphemisms. And certainly at those Windsor banquet halls and hotels there was a tray of bacon, but it was just bacon, a basic foodstuff rather than a food fetish with an edge and cult following. If someone ate too much of it, they certainly didn’t talk about it and there was a safety catch of shame to prevent people from piling it up too high.

Just like having a broad international palate today, where there’s pride in one’s knowledge and enjoyment of ethnic restaurants that has come to be a surrogate for multiculturalism itself, food is a recreation of the risk that other, working classes face every day. Food is a versatile cultural signifier that can show how badass a person is or how accepting and progressive he is, without having to be particularly badass (or deeply tolerant, in the case of eating multiculturally) in reality. Since the typical urbane bruncher does not work in a profession that is particularly dangerous, like mining or underwater welding (though some people in those vocations likely enjoy a brunch now and then too), and lead urban domestic lives in relatively genteel surroundings, this fetishization of the less healthy aspect of the brunch menu has much in common with extreme sports and ultimate adventures where people opt to inject some managed risk into middle-class stability and safety, while those in working and poorer classes would happily manage more risk out of their lives. Just look at the professions of the people who pay tens of thousands of dollars to climb, and sometimes die on, Mount Everest each year.