Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Brunch Historian: A History of Brunch

The strange world of brunch continues to expand, generating bizarre new life forms, embracing flavors and ingredients never before associated with mankind's pre-noon existence.

- Willaim Grimes, "At Brunch, The More Bizarre The Better," The New York Times, July 8, 1998.
In this first entry of the Brunch Historian, I explore the history of the term "brunch." Brunch is, of course, a portmanteau of "breakfast" and "lunch(eon)" and is thought to have originated in Britain in the late 19th century as a student slang term. According to the Aug. 1, 1896 issue of the British magazine, Punch:
To be fashionable nowadays we must 'brunch'. Truly an excellent portmanteau word, introduced, by the way, last year, by Mr. Guy Beringer, in the now defunct Hunter's Weekly, and indicating a combined breakfast and lunch.
Guy Beringer's article, aptly titled "Brunch: A Plea," extolled the virtues of brunch, principally because it would allow you to stay up later and get drunker on Saturday night and not be required to wake up early for breakfast. In his "Plea" he writes:
Instead of England’s early Sunday dinner, a post-church ordeal of heavy meats and savory pies, why not a new meal, served around noon, that starts with tea or coffee . . . By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday night carousers.
Beringer was also remarkable visionary, envisioning that the meal could also be accompanied by alcoholic beverages, thus paving the way for the tradition brunch drinks like the Bloody Mary or mimosa (more on brunch drinks in future Brunch Historian posts).

Brunch became popular in the Untied States in the 1930s in Chicago, according to Evan Jones, author of ''American Food: The Gastronomic Story," because movie stars, celebrities, and the wealthy who were taking transcontinental train rides stopped off in Chicago between trains for a late morning meal. Sunday brunch, however, only became popular in the United States after World War II saw a decline in American chuchgoers. Jones explained to the New York Times that:
We like to sleep in Sundays, read the newspapers and loll in bed. After the World War II generation went away from church altogether, Sunday became a day to enjoy doing nothing and brunch just grew like topsy.
This trend continued as the more formal 1950s gave way to the '60s and large formal Sunday lunches gave way to more casual brunches. Soon however, what began as a rebellion against long formal meals began to be distorted by the upper class into elaborate meals that they called brunch as well.

The cuisine has changed as well. In the 1940s, the Times documents, the Fifth Avenue Hotel served a "Sunday Strollers' Brunch'' consisting of "sauerkraut juice," "clam cocktails" and "chicken liver omelet in Madeira." In more recent times, the menus generally consists of some breakfast items and some lunch items, in an apparent compromise to each diner's preference. Even more recently, we've seen the emergence of the dim sum brunch and the "drunk brunch" to further complicate things. Menu formulation has apparently taken a toll on some chefs. Celebrity chef Bobby Flay isn't impressed by brunch, telling the New York Times:
[Chefs] hate cooking it and they hate thinking about it. 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.
I don't think such brunch-hating words deserve a response, but if anyone is in the New York area, please feel free to voice your disappointment to him at the Mesa Grill or Bar Americain (if he's ever there).

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