Monday, April 20, 2009

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!

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