What was brunch?

chuka ugwu-oju


Good afternoon, listeners. Welcome back to “What Was That?”, the weekly show that looks back at once-dominant fads, beliefs, and cultural practices that, for a wide variety of reasons (and, just as often, no particular reason at all) have largely faded from our collective memory. Today is January 1, 2118, and in celebration of the new year, our continued existence as a species, and what I know a lot of you have realized is the fifth anniversary of our program, this week’s entire episode will be devoted to what’s been, without a doubt, our most requested topic since our debut: brunch. Yes, that’s right. We’re finally doing the brunch episode. So I recommend that you sit back, relax, and, most of all, listen closely because today, all of you, the unwashed, brunch-deprived children of the 22nd century, will finally get an answer to that question that’s been burning inside for as long as you can remember: what was brunch?

Before I really get into this, I need to acknowledge that I was extremely reluctant to cover this topic for a very long time. Anyone who’s even a casual listener of this show knows that I have never been shy about criticizing the series of terrible decisions made by our pre-Correction ancestors – decisions that, at this point, I think few would dispute were what led to the Correction in the first place. I’m no apologist for the old ways. I probably have less patience for apologists than most of you. But there’s something about this topic, and I can’t say exactly what it is, but there’s definitely something about this topic that seems to invariably produce the sort of smug, mean-spirited self-righteousness that in recent years has made any rational discussion of the past almost impossible. If I’m being honest with myself, it’s precisely this reaction, precisely the contempt triggered by the mere mention of the subject, that convinced me we need to address it on this program. Obviously, I understand the anger. How could anyone living in our era of scarcity not understand the anger? But my hope is that, by the end of today’s episode, some of you will begin to question just how much of this anger we need to hold on to.

So, what was brunch? In many ways, it’s almost impossible to describe in a way that would adequately explain our collective level of interest in it. People have always ritualized food. I don’t believe there’s a civilization that has ever existed in which certain meals weren’t granted a kind of elevated status. We still ritualize food today, for the record, though I know that so many of you have convinced yourselves that we’ve somehow managed to conquer one of our most ancient impulses. Yet when you take a look at, say, an early 21st century brunch in New York City – and I think the consensus view among historians of food culture is that this is probably the time and place where brunch was most firmly entrenched as a social institution – there’s something about this particular ritualization that strikes all of us as different, right? We struggle to articulate what it might be, but we know that there’s something about that moment that warrants further explanation. Well, I’m no expert, but I have done a fair amount of research on this topic, and I’d argue that a true understanding of brunch is only possible if you consider the important socioeconomic factors that were at play.

By the early 21st century, capitalism – expressed as either a full free market system or a tightly regulated activity operating under state control – was firmly entrenched as the dominant economic system across the globe. And even capitalism’s staunchest critics would concede that allowing for widespread competition in the provision of goods and services significantly brought down, by and large, the costs of many of these goods and services. These same critics, however, would correctly point out that with respect to some of the goods that society still considered to be most essential (housing, most notably), costs weren’t brought down at all. Quite the opposite, in fact, particularly in large cities, which were undergoing a renaissance following several decades of turbulence and neglect. To return to the example of New York City: in Manhattan, the median annual household income at the time was $66,739. Though not an outrageous sum of money, it allowed for a lif  in which much of what the city had to offer was well within reach. At the same time, the average cost of a Manhattan apartment was over $800,000, clearly beyond what could be afforded on this salary, and almost certainly a stretch for those making double or even triple that amount. So the residents of New York City – and similarly large, vibrant cities throughout the developed world – faced a rather interesting dilemma: having enough money to enjoy the various delights one could easily find in a mature market economy, but not having nearly enough money to comfortably attain what were still considered the true hallmarks of maturity, such as buying a home or starting a family.

Given these circumstances, is it a mystery why so many young men and women found comfort in performative consumption, of which brunch was merely the most prominent example? We often malign what we’ve labelled the “treat yourself” mentality of that generation, but truly treating yourself would have meant buying a house with a mortgage you knew you could afford. It would have meant not having to take out thousands of dollars in student loans simply to have a shot at an unpaid internship, as was the traditional arrangement at the time. In cities where everything was available, but a true sense of security was decidedly unavailable, doubling down on life’s attainable pleasures may have felt like the only real choice.

I’ve described the conditions that were necessary for the brunch phenomenon to exist, but I realize that I haven’t explained why it was that brunch, rather than any of the other distractions perpetually vying for one’s attention, achieved this level of cultural dominance. Well, I can definitively say that it wasn’t the food. Even during the height of brunch mania, most leading chefs treated the meal as an afterthought, a mere revenue generator intended to support their more ambitious lunch and dinner menus. Consider the example of Sarabeth’s, a New York City chain of restaurants that was one of the first to proudly declare itself brunch-friendly. One of the historians I contacted while doing research for this episode was able to send me a perfect reproduction of Sarabeth’s Winter 2018 menu. On that menu, I counted eleven dishes in the “Extraordinary Eggs & Omelettes” section. This was not to be confused with the “Eggs Benedict” section, which contained an additional three dishes. To be clear, I have nothing against eggs. I was known to enjoy the occasional egg or two, back when poultry was still widely available. A perfectly adequate food, if I recall correctly. But do you really believe that people chose to wait several hours for a table, every single Saturday and Saturday, for an inferior version of something they could have made in a few minutes at home? So if it wasn’t the food that was driving this, what was it? It’s important to remember that though our ancestors lived in large cities surrounded by like-minded people, day to day life was generally very solitary. They worked long, often unpredictable hours, and the fast pace of city life all but drove the spontaneous hangout into extinction. Brunch was a way to catch up with friends and family after a long week of corporate or service-industry drudgery. It was, given the decline of organized religion and decreased participation in civic organizations, the last true bastion of community for some of its most enthusiastic celebrants. It was also a convenient excuse to get violently drunk at one o’clock in the afternoon, a proud tradition that, when possible, we carry on to this very day.

Does it matter that, as they were destroying the planet, they were doing so in the pleasure of good company? You don’t think I’m trying to ignore the environmental impact of this, do you? If I’m going to defend brunch, then I need to acknowledge the numbers, and the numbers… Well, the numbers aren’t good for my side. According to some studies, food consumption during that era was responsible for about a third of the global carbon footprint. Obviously, not all of this can be attributed to brunch. Breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and the many, many snacks that were eaten in between meals definitely played a role. Maybe the thing with brunch that strikes us all as especially disappointing is the profound disconnect between the politics of the brunch-faring generation, fairly progressive for those times, and their repeated failure to turn those politics into concrete action. Unlike a lot of people, I don’t doubt their sincerity. A solid majority of them believed that climate change was a true threat and I have no reason to question their professed support for policies that may have, at the very least, made some of today’s challenges just a bit less challenging. However, when it comes down to it, very few of them were willing to make the personal changes needed to lead a truly sustainable lifestyle. That’s not something that I ignore, and it’s not something that I ask you to ignore as we consider the past.

What I will ask is that before you rush to condemn the brunch generation, you try to keep a few things in perspective. I’m probably old enough to be your grandfather, and even I barely remember a time before the Correction. Most of you only know this world – the world we had no choice but to build after the old one up and died on us. It’s a world of strict rationing and efficiency mandates, a world of superstates that span continents and a level of international cooperation that far exceeds anything seen previously. That last one took some time, though I suppose it really does take a famine to get everyone on the same page. It’s a beautiful world, our world is. It’s also a difficult one, and so we rightly ask how a people who had so much could have allowed this to happen. I don’t have a satisfying answer to that question. I will say, though, that I’m proud of the world we’ve created, and I’m proud of the political and cultural advances that will ensure that what we’ve gone through will never be endured again, but I also recognize that these were choices necessitated by the circumstances we inherited, not our innate sense of virtue. I mentioned earlier that many of our ancestors were worried about climate change – and that’s true, but even the most pessimistic among them couldn’t have predicted how bad things would get. How could they? Do you think that you could have predicted this if you were them? Do you think they would have allowed this to happen if they had known? I’ll never tell you that your anger is illegitimate – I just feel the need to point out that these were, by and large, decent people who were simply shaped by the times in which they lived. And they dealt with struggle. Our struggle was worse, of course – we had to fight and claw our back to a standard of living that they were able to take for granted. But let’s not diminish theirs.

It’s time for a commercial break. When we come back, I have a bit that I’d like to say about bottomless mimosas. Can they, in some sense, explain everything?