Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Silent Majority?

Check out a must-read column from Brooklyn Paper writer Mike McLaughlin last September here. McLaughlin pulls no punches in his indictment of the dread meal:
The venerable weekend tradition is a well-oiled gastronomic sham, a frivolous use of the midday hours and a swindle that preys upon people in relationships.
One of the most persuasive clues that something is deeply wrong with brunch culture, McLaughlin doesn't fail to get input from the chefs who must choose whether they will participate in an activity they know in their hearts is deeply wrong:
Restaurant pros have been admitting that brunch is an ugly scene at least since celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain took a bite out of it in his memoir “Kitchen Confidential,” pointing out that the menu is often repackaged leftovers prepared by the least skillful cooks and sold for jacked-up prices.

Yet there’s no shortage of my neighbors diving into the fray.

“Brunch is a little bit like a war,” said Berton Schaeffer, a manager at Blue Ribbon Brooklyn on Fifth Avenue, which abandoned my least-favorite meal in favor of late-night dining. “I see the lines outside and the craziness to get into the good places. It’s a nightmare."
That's right: WAR. For breakfast?!?!

McLaughlin's actions haven't gone unnoticed by the brunch cops, though. Because in Brooklyn, while you can get high on the street with impunity, go for years without holding a real job, and more or less disobey any traffic laws you like, you better not say an ill word about brunch:
My resistance to the beloved, artery-clogging, weekend-only gorging and self-inflicted fleecing openly rattled some of my friends. Am I losing my faith in all the modern institutions that hold society, or at least Brooklyn, together in one seamless piece? “Next thing you know, you’ll stop shopping at the farmer’s market and watching independent movies,” one friend fretted. What does she think comes after that in my unraveling? A return to the suburbs? NRA membership? The horror.
See how the brunch cops play their insidious game? They know that their bizarre preference for uncomfortable low value social interaction over gastrointestinal comfort and productive activity would never be accepted on its own terms. So suddenly brunch is associated with all sorts of things that people really want to do. Those who would cry out against this new world order, an order they never asked for, are branded anti-social and anti-breakfast.

McLaughlin closes with a prayer for this silent majority, for the beleaguered eaters all around us who are neither anti-social nor anti-breakfast, but simply, anti-brunch:
Yet my declaration to avoid brunch has uncovered an unexpected number of sympathizers and not just among other eligible bachelors. The evidence is anecdotal, but there’s a huge subculture of Brooklynities turned off by brunching. The predictable menus bore people, the deviation from the normal three-meals-a-day schedule is disorienting and it’s almost impossible to get anything done pre- and post-brunch, members of the silent majority told me.
Patience, friends. Your time is at hand.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Taxonomy of Brunches I: Relationships

The meeting of romantic relationships and brunch is a messy business. Consider the ugly implications of brunch for relationships at various stages of development:

One night stand brunch. O most accursed of brunches! I have never had the personal misfortune to experience this brunch, nor do I understand how others have willingly chosen to experience this brunch, yet I know that it exists. I have seen them, shells of their former selves, sidling listlessly into brunch with other, happier humans, the horror of recognition that their next 45 to 70 (god forbid 90) minutes will be spent awkwardly picking at their smoked salmon scrambles with sides of mesculun. Homework: consider the ways in which a one night stand can end in dignity: discretion, brevity, avoidance of confined spaces, and the ways in which the conventions of brunch systematically violate each.

Someone with whom you've done it once or twice brunch. So, it's not a one-night stand. It's someone you've done it with once or twice, and someone with whom you wish to do it again. "If we go out to brunch, we will feel all legitmate like" you say to yourself. But this is a lie. You will only see the person you wish to do it with again as your boring brunch partner. Why would you eat omelettes with someone you want to do it with again in public if you could just eat omelettes with them at home? Doesn't that sound better? You have the rest of your lives to eat awkward meals together, don't spend them in the first few weeks.

Nothing better to do brunch. This is a later brunch, after you're together and all, when there's no more game to play and doing it together is assumed. It's Sunday, maybe you went out last night, maybe you just watched Netflix and drank some wine and fell asleep. It doesn't matter. Now it's 11:30 AM. You're kind of bored, so you put all of your hope in brunch. But you've forgotten the brunch factor: 1 regular relationship year is worth approximately 1.25 relationship brunch years. Your 27 year old mildly lame but still kicking relationship is suddenly 34. 34 becomes 43. You get the picture. You can't even read the paper because you're in some really cramped little shmancy brunch place with no room for the Sunday times on the table. So you just have to talk about what kind of omelettes you're going to order. Why??? When you could be drinking coffee in bed?

Next up, the various types of group brunch, and how brunch works to subvert and destroy our interpersonal relationships.

The Dangers of Brunch: Kelly's Story

Reader KD contributes this harrowing tale of a fateful two-brunch ordeal one December weekend day:

Personally, I think the social pressures around brunch have become downright dangerous. Allow me to recap a recent visit I had to New York City. Like many 30-somethings, I have a number of friends from various chapters of my life who have migrated to the New York area. It always makes trips to NYC a mixture of stressful and fun, as I find myself hopping from borough to borough, trying to catch up with everyone in just a few short days, and getting a chance to experience the diversity of the city. But what has happened now is that this “brunch” business has turned every social interaction between Friday afternoon and Monday evening into an obligatory orgy of carb-consumption that no human body should be expected to endure. Not to mention the over caffenation from multiple hours of bottomless coffee and the gastric side effects of gallons of freshly squeezed orange juice.

And so it was on a recent December weekend that I found myself in Brooklyn - roped into participating in two brunches in one day. It all happened rather suddenly, and I’m still not sure how I was so powerless to stop the events as they developed. Friends who were also in town from California wanted to see me for brunch in Williamsburg, while on the same day, a friend in Park Slope wanted me to meet his new girlfriend for brunch a bit later in the afternoon. I tried to push for some other type of social interaction. Why don’t we just go shopping? Check out a movie? Grab a late afternoon drink? No, no, brunch it was and brunch it had to be. Somehow, brunch has become the only appropriate social interaction for out of town guests. Begrudgingly, I agreed to both brunches, telling myself I would just get – maybe like a fruit plate or oatmeal – at one and somehow be able to handle it. But that is the other thing about brunch. You can’t get a fruit plate, because, well, that’s really breakfast now isn’t it? Brunch has to involve hash browns, or sausage or at least eggs.

So after nearly five hours of brunching, I boarded the subway – bloated, tweaky from caffeine, a shell of my former self really – and lapsed into one of the greatest food comas I have ever known. I woke up four hours later still full and in serious pain. In fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t eat again for three days. Brunch had defeated me, and ruined all of the other culinary plans I had for this trip to New York. No awesome steak house, no gorging on authentic Indian or Thai or Italian. Nope. Only brunch.

The Origins of Brunch

Lots of interesting information in this 1998 article by William Grimes, written back at the beginning of his tenure as the NYT food critic. First, there's this:
''Any restaurant that's open for brunch is packed,'' said John Villa, the executive chef at Park View at the Boathouse, in Central Park. ''It's guaranteed business.'' Chefs hate brunch. ''They hate cooking it and they hate thinking about it,'' Bobby Flay, the chef at Mesa Grill, said. ''Saturday night tends to be the busiest of the week, and they've probably gone out to have a few drinks afterward. Suddenly it's Sunday morning and you have to come in and cook eggs.'' Mr. Flay says that he happens to love brunch, but on this issue, he is out there alone.
This nicely encapsulates what I like to call the "corrupt economics of brunch", i.e. while enjoyable food experiences should at base be driven by a desire to have, well, an enjoyable food experience, brunch is driven by extra-culinary social pressures and financial pressures--a cynical pact between restauranteurs and their patrons to engage in a dining relationship that has little to do with a positive eating experience. It is the same kind of market failure responsible for the continued existence of poor-quality trendy restaurants, but applied to an entire meal category. But we'll return to this issue in more detail in later posts.

For now, I'd like to focus on another aspect of Grimes' column, about the origins of brunch, which Grimes identifies in an 1895 treatise entitled "Brunch: A Plea" (not a bad title for this project) by an Englishman named Guy Beringer. Beringer's hopes for brunch were no doubt pure, indeed, his arguments reflect many of the best things we still hope (in vain) to find in brunch:
Instead of England's early Sunday dinner, a postchurch ordeal of heavy meats and savory pies, the author wrote, why not a new meal, served around noon, that starts with tea or coffee, marmalade and other breakfast fixtures before moving along to the heavier fare? By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday-night carousers. It would promote human happiness in other ways as well. ''Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting,'' Beringer wrote. ''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.''
How tragic then, that Beringer's meal to "promote human happiness" and eschew the ill effects of "heavier fare" should have degenerated into today's soul deadening brunch affairs, often requiring the hungover to fully dress themselves before noon and then endure long waits on street corners with little to say to acquaintances who might have been entertaining when uninhibited ten hours earlier, but now seem dull and uninteresting.

And for what? To stuff themselves with precisely the midday heavy fare Beringer decries: a monstrous bastardization of simple breakfast foods, served in nauseating quantities, which then hang heavy upon the weekend afternoon, and even into the early evening!

How did we get here?

20 years ago, if you had gone to the twenty- and thirty-somethings of a major American city and told them that in just two decades, they would find Saturdays and Sundays beholden to a forced social eating ritual leading to deep afternoon food comas, awkward conversation, and exorbitant spending on glorified breakfast food, they would have dismissed you out of hand.

Yet this is precisely the situation in which we find ourselves today. The tyranny of brunch over weekend mornings has become so great that many do not even realize they have other choices, but blindly consent again and again to the dictates of the brunch imperialists: proponents deeply committed to the brunch ritual who push friends and acquaintances to engage in it again and again--and ostracize those who would question what real utility and enjoyment brunch provides.

I do not seek the wholesale eradication of brunch. I recognize that brunch today plays a critical role in such areas as finding a second best option to meet other people's parents, providing otherwise good restaurants with additional cashflow, and providing another public weekend social activity for the alcohol intolerant or people who always bail before 10 PM.

But I am asking that we put brunch in greater perspective, for greater understanding of those who secretly detest brunch, and for a new appreciation of forgotten lower-impact ways to feed oneself on a weekend morning after going out the previous night. For I believe the current brunch culture is unsustainabile and inefficient. If we don't begin reversing the trend now, we are going to look back in several years and wonder why we wasted all those Sunday afternoons digesting eggs benedict platters.

This blog is a cry for reason. It is the hope that one lone voice can inspire like minds to speak up for their interests, to feel confident saying, when asked "Let's do brunch tomorrow morning": "Nay. I shall not. For that is not how I wish to spend my day."

Our work begins now.