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.
Isn’t it going too far to say that brunch negatively affects quality of life?
There are many worse ways quality of life suffers. But when our leisure time is so limited and precious, to use it on something that is actually stressful? You’re jockeying for space and eyeing people: “Hurry up. Finish your stuff so I can sit down.” These are negative feelings generated during a leisure activity, maybe the only one of the week. It seems a waste.
What have Instagram and Twitter added to the dynamic?
Despite the mocking that it’s gotten over the last year or two there’s still this compulsion to say, “Look at this thing I’m gonna eat,” and, “I’m here, right now.” There’s still a need to broadcast that you are doing the thing that makes you a middle-class person. It’s attached to identity. If a brunch goes untweeted, did it have any worth? You have to tell people that you’re brunching. That’s the reason we brunch.
Remind people in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver what ‘brunch’ looks like in the rest of Canada.
The kind of brunch I grew up with in Windsor was a very decidedly special occasion – it wasn’t an every Sunday thing. We would make our way to the Hilton down on the river looking out at Detroit or to one of the fancy golf clubs or Italian banquet halls for communion or Mother’s Day. The brunch was very efficient, buffet-style. That happens in Toronto too at the Old Mill. I went a couple months ago and they had a huge Sunday brunch with hundreds of people, huge turnover and dozens of different dishes. It’s a much older crowd who maybe don’t have as much patience for the time-wasting. The food is what it is, there’s not too much fanfare made about it. The food is for eating.
What’s the fix to brunch? “Un-brunching?”
I found some people in Portland, Ore. of all places – the brunch heart of darkness with Portlandia – who do brunch right. They kind of saved brunch.
They call themselves the Joy Brunch Club. They meet every weekend but they have some rules: They’ll never wait in line, it’s only two hours maximum so it doesn’t ruin the rest of their day and they actually enjoy time with their friends in an unstressed way.
Putting some rules around it seems to work really well. I don’t want people to stop eating. Maybe if we fix it the way the Portland brunch club has, maybe our common desire to go for brunch might be a conduit through which we can build more social cohesion.
What about people who don’t see their weekend ritual as problematic at all?
There are many rituals people find comforting, like religion, that are subjects of necessary criticism in order to make them better. The book isn’t a call to stop brunching. But as it’s such a marker of class status and since we need to talk about class issues more but rarely do, perhaps a critical gaze can be cast in between all the foodster fun.
Is this push to “fix” brunch not also a first world problem the same way brunch is?
It’s certainly a first world problem. But we seem to like the living conditions in the first world and if that quality of life is being undermined, it should be fixed. If this was just about fixing the meal itself I’d likely not be interested in writing a whole book about it, but I see brunch as a way into talking about and fixing other troubling things about the middle class.
What’s the longest you’ve stood in line for brunch?
I haven’t gone in ages to a trendy brunch. In the early 2000s, I was lined up somewhere on College Street in Toronto. Just standing there, I noticed the Hobbesian nature of the brunch patrons where nobody cares about anyone else when they’re sitting down and others are standing outside the glass looking in. I wondered, “Why am I here?” The slightly humiliating feeling of being out there had an effect, knowing that down the street there is a diner that had no lineup. I’d rather go to the beach on a Sunday. That’s my brunch.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
For the love of eggs: Your thoughts on brunch
“Love brunch. It’s such a relaxing endeavour. You can take your time, enjoy refills on your coffee and take in the weekend. It all comes down to putting yourself in a weekend mindset, a mindset so different from the rushed and hectic pace of the week.” – Zach Fleisher, Winnipeg
“I despise it. Why would I get out of bed to wait in line? Everyone is hungover, cranky, smelly and obnoxious. Nothing is worth that to me. Give me a bowl of Greek yogurt and some granola in my own kitchen and let’s call it breakfast. I’m lucky I married a man who feels the same way. Mentioning 'brunch' makes him angry – like waving a red flag in front of a bull.” – Abby Langer, Toronto
“I love brunch after church on Sunday. It’s a chance to relax and enjoy companionship over food that I didn’t have to cook or clean up afterward. Then onto oohing and ahhing the street sales and deciding how to spend the day: relaxing, avoiding work or actually being productive. I really appreciate having a day that is slow, or at least a day that starts slow over brunch.” – Leigh Macklin, Hamilton
“Brunch is breakfast for lazy people. What is the difference between breakfast and brunch except the hour at which it is eaten and perhaps the addition of hollandaise sauce? For those of us who are able to get out of bed at a decent hour, we’ve already eaten breakfast. If I’m going to go to a restaurant around noon, I want to eat lunch. There are only so many eggs you can eat in one day.” – Shannon MacFarlane, Halifax
“I love weekend brunch but generally prefer to do it at home, not out at a restaurant. It’s my favourite meal to invite friends over for: As either a guest or the host, you get social right out of the gate and still have the rest of the day to enjoy. The food is not fussy: a few key dishes, home-roasted coffee and Prosecco to get things started.” – Wendy Fletcher, Toronto
“Brunch is pretty much a competitive contact sport in this city. Also, a typical brunch place is going to offer a variation on one theme: eggs with bacon/sausage, eggs with hollandaise, pancakes, waffles. As my wife is not a huge egg fan, we normally steer clear of the usual suspects. I'd rather have a bowl of pho, a porchetta sandwich or a nice steam tray filled with har gow than yet another interpretation of eggs Benedict.” – Miguel Pacheco, Toronto
“Brunch is my weekend ritual. It feels like an incomplete weekend if it's not filled with at least one brunch date. I find it to be the perfect time to catch up with girlfriends; stories from the party the night before are always a bonus. It’s a great excuse to sleep in and eat breakfasty foods past noon. Caesars: always!” – Hayley Findlay, Toronto
“Waiting in line for an overpriced trend shrine for the first meal of the day is wrong. A good brunch place is only as good as its trucker breakfast: it should include two eggs, bacon/sausage/ham, toast, beans, potatoes, fruit and endless coffee for between $5 and $9 and sticking around in the booth long past the food to discuss the previous evening’s misadventures. On a Sunday morning, it is barbarism to be delayed on the way to one’s breakfast and hustled out upon its conclusion.” – Jacob Saltiel, Montreal
“My husband Ross makes the best brunch, on our BBQ. His reasoning is, ‘Why do I have to stand in line for eggs? They are just eggs.’ Being at home makes it so much more relaxing. We use simple ingredients, something hearty, but we don’t need a $7 loaf of bread or organic free-range eggs. Coffee and juice are always on tap.” – Anna Iacono Cammalleri, Toronto
“I love brunch. It’s a chance for friends and family to take time to eat together and have a thoughtful conversation. In the absence of company, it's a chance for me to regroup at the end of the week.It’s easy to forget brunch in the name of productivity. For me, it’s a way to reconnect with a simple pleasure: a well-cooked breakfast and the time in which to enjoy it.” – Sarah Hamilton, Edmonton
“Brunch is something that should be a sly culinary admission that you stayed up too late the night before and had no good reason to get up early. It used to be an event for layabouts content to eat when they ate, making the best of what’s in the fridge or on a diner’s menu. Brunch doesn’t ‘happen’ anymore. It’s planned. We talk about meeting for it and wake up so we don’t miss it. There’s no leisure or spontaneity left in it.” – Seamus Bellamy, Victoria
“Brunch gets a bad reputation because people have this image of too-cool-for-school, hungover people waiting in long lines but that doesn’t have to be the case. Just plan better. Find the places that open a little early, show up before the masses and it’s no problem. It’s not really about being seen at the trendy new restaurant or eating overpriced poached eggs. Brunch is about good food and good people, regardless of location.” – Matt Huether, Toronto