Matter of Taste: On the origins of brunch, the new inter-generational battleground

Not quite breakfast, not quite lunch, but where Millennials and Baby Boomers go to war over eggs

Matter of Taste: On the origins of brunch, the new inter-generational battleground

[Flickr/red stilletto]

It’s rare that any column relating to the best of all things food should start with the words of a rumbling down under, but events as they stand in Australia merit some consideration; over the past decade, much live in every major city in every developed nation around the world, battle lines have been drawn in newspaper articles and blog posts between millennials, a generation mournfully looking at the future their parents promised but which never materialised, and baby boomers, who raised millions of entitled brats and now cannot get rid of them. Accordingly, a self-declared “social observer” named Bernard Salt tried to prove he was worth his name with a recent op-ed in The Australian, in which Salt pinched and prodded and poked holes in the ultimate vice of lazy generation snowflake – brunch.

“I’ve seen young people order smashed avocado with crumbled feta on five-grain toasted bread at $22 [€15] a pop and more,” Salt writes in salty fashion, adding salt to the wound with: “I can afford to eat this for lunch because I am middle-aged and have raised my family. But how can young people afford to eat like this? Shouldn’t they be economising by eating at home? How often are they eating out? Twenty-two dollars several times a week could go towards the deposit on a house.”

Despite being neither a property nor home economist, Salt’s suggestion that young people save for a deposit by skipping brunch has been widely mocked by millennial commentators, many of whom reminded the 60-year-old columnist that they go out for brunch for a few hours respite from the crushing realities of a rat-race rental market (an average one-bed apartment, not even in the most chichi brunch-friendly neighbourhoods, costs €330 per week) and a highly inflated property market. Sound familiar?

Salt’s sums don’t quite add up – this two-bedroom tenement, chock full of fixer-upper charm just not all of its walls, is expected to go for around $1m, or 25 years of smashed avo brunches. But it’s just another nail in the coffin in an attempt to pillory the portmanteau meal that most of us on this side of the Atlantic first heard of when Marge Simpson was learning to bowl. A symptom of the pervasive nature of gentrification, “Brunch is for jerks,” the New York Times announced in 2014, around the same time that author Shawn Micallef explored the social and cultural ramifications of Bloody Marys and toast in his book The Trouble with Brunch: Work, Class & the Pursuit of Leisure.

But for such a contentious battleground, where exactly did brunch come from? As is almost always the case in the history of consumption, nobody knows for sure.

Arguably the leading theory is that brunch found its footing in England’s hunt breakfasts, lavish meals for the landed gentry featuring several courses serving up meats, eggs, bread, bacon, fresh fruits and pastries. Others point to Catholicism and the tradition of pious mass-goers waiting till after taking the Eucharist to break their fast, scoffing down a heavier meal after coming home from their local church. And rounding off the holy trinity is New York City, the progenitor of a number of iconic brunch staples like bagels and eggs Benedict.

What is clear, at least, is the etymology of the word brunch, which first appeared in print in an 1895 Hunter’s Weekly article penned by one Guy Beringer. In Brunch: A Plea, the author made a case for eschewing chewing on heavy meals on Sundays and instead enjoying something lighter late in the morning. “Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting,” Beringer pleas. “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.” He clearly already owned a house.

The concept of brunch came into its own in the United States during the 1930s and 40s, with thanks to the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, whose brightest stars would routinely stop in Chicago to enjoy a late morning meal when riding the transcontinental railroad. Hotels also promoted the concept, as with most restaurants closed on Sundays and church attendance figures falling after WWII, the middle classes needed something social to pique their interests of a Sunday. Brunch also caught on with a new generation of women, the kind who had entered the workforce while their men were away at war and who would soon be birthing an entire litter of men who would grow up to become moody columnists in Australia. With more and more women working, Sundays became their day off too, meaning they didn’t want to slave over a hot stove when they could eat out instead.

More than half a century later and some people would have you believe that a working couple is too poor to enjoy it, even without the slice of cantaloupe at the end.

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