Rachael Popowich knows the brunch orders before her customers step in to Aunties & Uncles, the Toronto restaurant where she cooks. Old girlfriends catching up will split a savoury menu item and a sweet one, drinking “lots of teas.” Packs of guys roll in hungover, ordering mountains of burgers, breakfast pockets and juice.
In the brunching class, Popowich sees customers who “want a little sizzle with their steak” at the end of a busy work week. She figures in Toronto author and urbanist Shawn Micallef’s latest book, The Trouble with Brunch: Work, Class and the Pursuit of Leisure.
Here, Micallef explores what the popular urban ritual of spending a good portion of your weekend lined up for overpriced chicken and waffles served up by testy waitstaff says about leisure time today – and what Instagramming that ordeal tells us about modern social status. Brunch, argues Micallef, is an illusion of the good life, “a grand performance of leisure that is not, in itself, at all leisurely.”
(Also this month, author Farha Ternikar traces the roots of this “modern meal of leisure” in her new book, Brunch: A History, scanning historic cookbooks, television and Twitter.)
With increasingly outré food and unrelenting lineups, brunch divides. Beloved by some as a precious weekend pastime, brunch increasingly has its detractors, people who have checked out of the scene. The Globe spoke with Micallef about brunch and class, selfish patrons who linger and the new movement of “unbrunching.”
People in cities have a “near religious devotion” to brunch, you write. What do you think urbanites are trying to show each other at brunch?
It’s conspicuous consumption, modern-style. Some people show off their wealth by buying the top Mercedes, a Rolex watch or an Armani suit. The brunching class show their standing by having these very conspicuous brunches where they’re waiting in line, seeing others waiting in line, making the scene and then tweeting about it, Instagramming it. It’s a demonstration of, “I am settled enough in my place in my world that I can take all this time off to have leisure in front of everyone else.”
What does it say that our idea of leisure involves waiting in a lineup for expensive eggs and mercurial service?
It’s a performance of leisure, a self-flagellating exercise that people go through that’s attached to ideas of class. Right now, the fashion is you show this particular, creative, bohemian middle class by going to brunch. We use food as a status symbol.
Is it also a chance to break some rules?
Breakfast, lunch and dinner have rules about the time it happens and the duration. Brunch sprawls all over the place, it can happen between 10 and 4. You also look at how bad the food is for you, it’s not about healthy eating. It’s like a kid wearing an angry T-shirt with a swear word on it, or those guys in Yorkville on the weekend who drive Harleys but they’re stockbrokers during the week. They’re performing this badassness and engaging in managed risk, when in much of your life, there’s not much actual risk. It’s like smoking.
We do brunch differently at various points in our lives though: late and hungover when you’re young, early and awake after you have babies.
When I’m laying in bed at 10 on Sunday morning because I don’t have kids and I see people already chattering about ‘being at brunch,’ they tend to be people whose lives are little more established in the family sense. Brunch for those folks has to be more structured by necessity. When you have kids you can’t spend the afternoon without thinking about time.
In 1895, an English writer named Guy Beringer penned an essay titled “Brunch: A Plea.” In his vision for a new meal he wrote about sweeping away “the worries and cobwebs of the week.”
The idealized brunch has people believing that it’s all in balance. But in reality our lives are not as bohemian as we would like to think. We’re answering e-mails 24 hours a day and we always feel on with something to do. Work is not compartmentalized the way it was traditionally. The sprawling, messy brunch corresponds to our sprawling messy work lives.
You argue that empathy doesn’t exist at brunch, that otherwise liberal-minded people become “monstrous amalgams of Ayn Rand and Margaret Thatcher.”
It’s an interesting contradiction. In one way you want to be seen by these people because you’re going to this trendy place. In another, you want to screw them because you linger over tea or another mimosa. In one way, you want to be part of these people. But then you don’t really give a crap about them. It suggests a solipsism and self-centredness, the people who brunch. If everyone co-operated at brunch and was a little more efficient about it, the way people are in diners, the experience would be better.