I lived in New York City for ten years, and I can safely say that it’s a city crazy about brunch. On weekend days, especially Sundays, people all over town go out for eggs, pancakes, and sandwiches. People who normally would never wait for a table at a restaurant shiver in the cold for an hour at the most happening spots. Even the most dingy, unspectacular pubs open up on Sunday mornings to serve scrambled eggs to bleary-eyed hipsters. Brunch can be a group affair with parents and friends, or even just a quiet breakfast between roommates where you re-hash the events of Saturday night.
The word “brunch” is obviously a portmanteau made from the words “breakfast” and “lunch.” It’s served midday and combines the best sweet and savory elements of both of these meals. It’s the most common way to celebrate Easter and Mother’s Day, and has even become an important element of wedding and family celebrations. As popular as it is, it’s easy to wonder how this mish-mash middle meal ever came to be.
A Hazy History
The origins of brunch aren’t exactly clear. We do know, however, that on Sundays, it was common among Christians to have a large post-church meal. Catholics require fasting before mass, so after leaving their place of worship, many people ate a large celebratory meal combining breakfast and lunch. Some churches even hosted the meals right on the premises. We also know that during much of Western history, the Sunday midday meal was the largest meal of the day, followed in the early evening by a smaller supper.
A British writer named Guy Beringer first used the word brunch in 1895. In his essay “Brunch: A Plea,” he advocates for a meal that’s lighter than what was traditional at the time. The midday post-church meal in turn-of-the-century Britain consisted of heavy meat pies and other gut-busting delicacies, but Beringer proposed a lighter meal, which started with breakfast food before moving onto dinnertime fare. He wrote, “[Brunch] 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.”
Beringer also noted that a later meal on Sunday would make it easier for those who liked to drink on Saturday nights. He wrote, “By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday night carousers.” He even suggested that instead of coffee and tea, perhaps this new meal could start with alcoholic beverages.
From Fish Balls to Frittatas
America may not have invented the concept of brunch, but we definitely ran with it and made it a hit. Although brunch originally conjured up images of idle ladies of leisure and people too poor to afford three full meals, Americans became very taken with brunch after World War I. During the Roaring Twenties, partygoers even created a mini-brunch that took place in the wee hours of the morning between dinner and breakfast, to refresh and sustain people who were dancing and drinking all night long.
In the 1940s, the Fifth Avenue Hotel featured a “Sunday Strollers’ Brunch” which consisted of sauerkraut juice, clam cocktails, and calf’s liver with hash browns, according to the New York Times. In the 1920s, one women’s magazine recommended that in constructing a brunch menu, “a delicate hash, light fish balls, liver, and bacon are all appropriate.”
How tastes have changed … the menus of today’s best brunch establishments feature such treats as lemon-ricotta pancakes, delectable egg sandwiches and frittatas, and Eggs Benedict. Many restaurants put a lot of thought into their brunch menus, and places with the best food and large, devoted followings often command wait times of hours. In my old neighborhood, there was one spot at which a party had to arrive at the moment of opening, or risk incurring a two-hour wait. As crazy as it seems, plenty of people waited. Having sampled their blueberry pancakes with maple butter, I can confirm that the wait is worth it.
Eggs Benedict are a staple of brunch menus across the country, but although sources differ on the origin of this classic dish, it’s safe to say that its inception occurred in New York City. According to one legend, in 1893 a Mrs. LeGrand Benedict asked for something new and different during her regular meal at Delmonico’s, and she and the maître d’ came up with the dish. Others say that in 1894, a Mr. Lemuel Benedict requested the combination of poached eggs, Canadian bacon, English muffins, and Hollandaise sauce in order to recover from a hangover. Either way, the chef recognized the dish’s delicious potential and it’s been a brunch classic ever since.
It’s Five O’clock Somewhere
One thing that hasn’t changed from Beringer’s original vision of the brunch meal is its association with alcohol. Most brunch menus serve drinks, and for those recovering from late-night revelry, a morning cocktail can steady the nerves. The Bloody Mary in particular was developed specifically to be drunk in the morning to quell the pain of a hangover. The Bellini, a cocktail of sparkling wine and peach juice or puree, was invented in the 1930s by Giuseppe Cipriani at Harry’s Bar in Venice and named after one of Cipriani’s favorite Renaissance painters, Giovanni Bellini. Along with its sister, the mimosa, these cocktails became associated with brunch because their light, drinkable nature made it seem acceptable to drink them in the morning. Also, brunch is usually a leisurely meal, not rushed or harried, and lounging with eggs and pastries does indeed lend itself to enjoying a cocktail or two.
Beringer would be happy with the way brunch has been elevated to an art form, making it an important meal shared with family and friends. Whether it features fish balls, a grilled gruyere cheese sandwich, or even a humble bacon-and-cheese omelet, brunch is an American cultural institution. Beringer himself wasn’t picky about what was served at brunch. All he requested was “everything good, plenty of it, variety and selection.” Sounds like a perfect Sunday afternoon to me.
Updated September 25, 2009