The further you get through life, the more forcefully you may be struck by the poignant realization of how few meals remain. Working on the basis of three a day (snacks don’t count), there are just over a thousand opportunities a year to play with.
Which brings us to brunch. In a recent New York Times article, David Shaftel declared war on brunchers. “Brunch is for jerks,” Shaftel opined, regretting the self-satisfied affluence of the late morning hordes who took over his West Village neighborhood every Saturday and Sunday “eager to order from rote menus featuring some variation of mimosas and eggs Benedict.” Among other crimes, the brunchers were guilty of being childless, lazy types who reveled “in the naughtiness of waking up late.”
“And, um, what’s wrong with that?” replied Tim Teeman, rushing to the defence of brunch in The Daily Beast. Teeman argued that the selfish “you” time of brunch—the catching up with friends over eggs plus daytime alcohol—was exactly what the weekend needed: “a chance to play hooky from the stresses of the workweek.” For Teeman, unlike Shaftel, the glory of brunch was the way it mixed things up. “Brunch is a catalyst, brunch is the enforcer of different-rules-for-the-weekend.”
Which is all well and good. But for me, the problem with brunch is not the jerks who eat it, but the way it replaces the workday rules about eating with even more constrictive ones for Saturday and Sunday. Brunch is—like so much else in the modern world—a version of fun and freedom whose parameters have been prescribed in advance. It’s conformism masquerading as individualism. Who decided that the only way to relax at midday on a Saturday is with a plate of eggs covered in slightly too much hollandaise accompanied by a flute of juice mixed with reedy Prosecco?
The very word brunch offers a clue to its drawbacks. Like the cronut or the spork, the hybrid brunch is less satisfying than the two things it purports to replace. Two-meals-in-one sounds good, before you realize that what it actually means is that you are expected to miss one of your other meals, specifically breakfast. When the concept of brunching was first established in the late nineteenth century, it doubtless seemed an exciting proposition for leisured night owls who partied all night and woke up late. It was a substantial meal that monied types could eat—with Bloody Marys or screwdrivers—if they slept in too late for breakfast. Oxford students said that if the time you ate it was nearly luncheon, it was called “blunch.”
But for those of us whose body-clock—or children, or insomnia, or exercise regime, or work—gets us up at 6, no matter what the day, delaying your first meal of the day until brunch is a deprivation rather than a bonus. Brunch requires you to relinquish one of your precious few allotted meals, and to act as if it is a special treat to do so. By the time the fancy eggs arrive, everyone has drunk slightly too much fizzy wine on an empty stomach. One of the reasons that a brunch menu seems so appetizing is because it is always contemplated in a ravenously hungry state. I only really like “brunch” if I can either have breakfast first or eat the eggs Florentine early enough that there’s still time to slip in a light lunch after.
A brunch habit is best understood as acting out a frustration with various aspects of our workaday dining habits. For one thing, many people clearly wish they could rewrite the rules on mealtimes, and brunch, with it’s ambiguous timing, allows one to do just that. Personally, I’d happily eat weekday lunch at closer to 11 than 1 on many days, leaving the afternoon free to work; while I have friends who are only really happy if they can follow the Spanish patterns of lunch at 2 or 3 followed by late, late dinner. Brunch also speaks to a widespread desire to start drinking earlier in the day—that perhaps doesn’t need too much explaining. Brunch gives permission for noontime tipsiness without guilt. But wouldn’t it be healthier and saner if we occasionally permitted ourselves a glass of good red wine on a Wednesday lunch-break instead of depriving ourselves all week, then gorging on mediocre cocktails?
But the main lesson to glean from brunch is that people love eggs, and would like to eat more of them (or the scrambled tofu equivalent). Brunch only came into existence in the first place—as Abigail Carroll explains in her excellent history Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal) because of the replacement of the traditional breakfast, laden with sausage and eggs and grits, with a “quick workweek breakfast” of packaged cereals and commercial sliced-bread toast. We miss eggs. As food writer Amanda Hesser has said, “I rarely eat breakfast but I adore eggs and there are very few opportunities to eat them at other times of day.”
Yet nothing is stopping us from eating eggs at dinnertime, except for our own prejudices. It is an absurd anomaly that we still consider dishes such as Spanish tortilla—a golden disk of sweetly cooked onions, oil, wafer-thin potatoes and eggs—unworthy of an evening meal. Baked eggs with tarragon and cream; poached eggs with sautéed mushrooms; shakshuka with bell peppers and cilantro; old-fashioned French omelette—any dish along these lines can be turned into an evening feast, with hunks of sourdough and a tasty salad of greens. To dine on eggs a couple of nights a week would have benefits. It would help us to eat less meat. It would give us pleasure. And it would mean that, come the weekend, we are not so yolk-deprived that we fall on the first eggs benedict that comes our way.
There are so many other weekend meals we might be enjoying, if we weren’t so busy brunching. We could be enjoying Saturday ramen and Sunday meze or staying at home and making a huge pot of chicken soup. Freed from the tyranny of brunch, you might choose to eat like the Brazilians, and see Sunday as an opportunity for a magnificent stew or soup, the kind that are too time-consuming to make during the week. In Brazil, Sunday lunchtime means Feijoada: a hearty mixture of black beans and smoked meats, similar to a French cassoulet, served with sliced oranges, white rice, and kale, with cold beers to drink alongside. Another excellent model for the weekend meal is the British Sunday roast. Roast pork with crackling and apple sauce; roast beef with horseradish and Yorkshire pudding; roast lamb with mint sauce; all served, like Thanksgiving dinner, with various vegetable sides on which some trouble has been lavished. Such a lunch brings everyone together for the common purpose of roast potatoes and gravy. And something like apple crumble or treacle tart for pudding. There is a feeling of expansiveness about Sunday lunch that is often lacking in brunch. You drink a glass of red wine or two and as morning gives way to afternoon, you slowly unwind from what Irving Berlin calls “the cares that hung around me through the week.”
Best of all, you didn’t have to skip breakfast.