When Did Brunch Get So Basic?
You’ve probably heard the news by now: brunch sucks. The New York Times thinks it’s for jerks. Bon Appetit hates it.BuzzFeed has twenty-four reasons why it’s the “absolute worst,” and Portlandia dedicated an entire episode to skewering the absurd lengths a certain kind of young, mostly white, probably hungover city-dweller will go to procure it. It’s at once an excuse for day drinking and a “measure of social significance.” It’s a forced fraternizing between food groups that comes complete with a dumb name.
The etymology of the word is almost annoyingly easy to trace—as if whatever porridge-eating gods our Puritan ancestors prayed to wanted to make sure everyone knew exactly who was to blame for the hedonistic excess represented by the bottomless mimosa. Every history of the Franken-meal will point the reader to this August 1896 issue of England’s Punch magazine, which thanks a “Mr. Guy Beringer” for introducing the “excellent portmanteau word” in the pages of a periodical called Hunter’s Weekly the previous year. (Beringer’s original article, though oft quoted, is nowhere to be found online.) In “Brunch: A Plea,” Beringer called for a new meal to replace the heavy early dinner that used to follow church; it would start with “tea or coffee, marmalade and other breakfast fixtures,” and would helpfully eliminate “the need to get up early on Sunday,” making “life brighter for Saturday-night carousers.” (Perhaps to soothe said carousers’ aching heads, Beringer also suggested serving whiskey and beer in lieu of coffee and tea.)
First popularized in the States in the 1930s at the Pump Room in Chicago’s Ambassador Hotel, which hosted movie stars like John Barrymore and Clark Gable during cross-country stopovers, brunch ultimately gained traction with those poorer in both dollars and mustaches in the fifties, when church attendance dropped.
These days, those likeliest to embark on a bleary-eyed pilgrim’s progress toward a bloody mary station live in urban areas on the coasts. (Wyoming is, by Google searches, “the least brunch-friendly state.”) “We like to sleep in on Sundays,” Evan Jones, author of American Food: The Gastronomic Story, told the New York Times in 1983, “read the newspapers and loll in bed.” No one reads newspapers anymore, but otherwise, it’s hard to argue with the man.
Which is perhaps why it’s hard to pinpoint when and why the tide turned; in principle, it’s hard to be against sleeping and lolling. And yet this article from the late ’80s, which presents the early-afternoon repast as absolutely de rigueur for those who fancy themselves at all chic, seems a kind of last gasp. By 1991, the Times was dubbing brunch the “most ghastly meal in America.” Five years later, the Grey Lady was backdating its objections: a 1996 article pegs brunch as “one of those habits of the 1970’s . . . that seem hopelessly dated.”
There are two good objections to brunch: It’s a pain for waitstaff (servers have to wake up early, and they work for relatively meager tips, since restaurants make the meal lucrative by marking up the price of cheaply available breakfast foods, like eggs, but 20 percent of a $13 order of “drunk beans” is still under $3); and it’s a sign of gentrification.
But the meal’s loudest detractors—or those given the loudest microphones, anyway—seem peeved not because it’s necessarily the province of those with both disposable time and disposable money, but precisely because it used to be reserved for those who had much more of both. The problem, they hint, is not that brunch is too elitist, it’s that it’s not elitist enough; it’s become popular, nonexclusive—in a word: basic.
Brunch used to mean the owner of Mortimer’s shooing patrons away from Diana Vreeland’s table “in the window at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 75th Street.” Now it calls to mind “Hey Ladies” emails in which the phrase “I miss your pretty faces” is punctuated with three exclamation points. Sex and the City goes into profanity-free syndication on TBS, all the rubes in the flyover states who won’t shell out for HBO get to see the girls dishing over steak frites and bellinis, and pretty soon a magazine in Dallas is compiling a list of the best “egg-tastic options for the week’s most important meal.”
I am something of a snob—if not usually about food—and so not unsympathetic to the instinct to turn against something once it has been appropriated by (and appropriately dumbed down for) the masses. But the fact that the real problems with brunch—if one can type such a phrase with a straight face—are rooted in issues of class prompts snobs (at least your liberal, bien pensant types) to cloak their objections in populism.
David Shaftel’s 2014 anti-brunch screed, which appeared in the Times’s Sunday Review, is exemplary in its deployment of this kind of camouflage. Contemplating the unwashed, bacon-seeking hordes, Shaftel reflects that his “once diverse neighborhood” (the West Village) “now brims with the homogeneity of an elite university.” He sneers at how “something so fundamentally conformist can seem like the height of urban sophistication.” And Shaftel knows from urban sophistication. After all, he once spent a day in Dubai “hovering above the desert in an air-conditioned five-star hotel restaurant” enjoying a multi-course, hours-long meal while “guzzling a jeroboam of Veuve Clicquot.” What irritates Shaftel most is not that the brunchers on his block are, by and large, wealthy and white; it’s the possibility that this déclassé crowd devalues the obviously much more recherché brunch-pleasures he has himself enjoyed.
Exclusivity is a mark of value; and when the same general experience is available to a relatively broader segment of the population—when eating out on a weekend, or vacationing on a cruise ship, is possible not merely for the upper class, but for the upper-middle-class—it becomes more important to differentiate between kinds of experience. Whether you view brunch as wasteful, essential, or tacky will depend in large part on your income bracket. The meal itself may be innocent, but it stands as a potent symbol of the historic eagerness of those with just enough money to mimic the habits of those who have too much—exploiting those who have too little along the way. In the end, it’s not about brunch—it almost never is—it is, as usual, about money.