Around the corner from my house is a tiny restaurant where each table is graced with a single flower in a small vase, and the china is sweetly mismatched. They make very nice Rajasthani eggs and French toast with caramelized bananas, and I once saw Michael Cera having brunch with Aubrey Plaza there. Mostly, the restaurant is known for the queues, which stretch a city block and can last, on a Sunday morning, over an hour. This is, needless to say, ridiculous. An hour of a Sunday waiting in line, hoping to imbibe your iced Vietnamese coffee in the presence of Michael Cera, is an hour you will never get back.
But brunch is very much about our relationship to time. It’s an act associated almost entirely with the weekend – a declaration that you are at leisure. No one meets for a business brunch on Wednesday. At its best, brunch can be a communal, delicious break from labour, domestic and professional. But more commonly, brunch is a noisy, belly-and-wallet-busting status symbol that shouts: “Look how much time and money I have to waste!” If your goal is a fulfilling, rejuvenating weekend, here’s a tip: go easy on the restaurant brunching.
Brunch is a British invention, and the word first appeared in an 1895 Hunter’s Weekly article called “Brunch: A Plea”: ‘‘Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting,’’ wrote the article’s author, brunch upseller Guy Beringer. ‘‘It 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.’’
A century-plus later, it remains a robust, secular ritual of city life. Other cultures have variations: there’s the Chinese dim sum and the French le grand petit déjeuner. But the present-day urban brunch is a group outing organized over endless texts, marked by loud, panicked service, mimosa cocktail-soaked rowdiness and the instagramming of pisco sours and (hot brunch trend) “cloud eggs.”
The queues like the one I witness every Sunday around the corner present a Hobbesian dynamic of careless, gluttonous diners ignoring the hungry outsiders pressing their faces against the glas
Writer Shawn Micallef, in his book The Trouble with Brunch, calls out the meal, which can stretch to three-hours, as an act of conspicuous consumption and an epic time-waster. Micallef ’s little book is actually about class; fourteen-dollar eggs, he contends, are a serious signifier of disposable income. Micallef notes that the pricey food is usually just the restaurant’s leftovers from the week before, buried under rich sauces. The queues like the one I witness every Sunday around the corner present a Hobbesian dynamic of careless, gluttonous diners ignoring the hungry outsiders pressing their faces against the glass. “Empathy,” Micallef writes, “does not exist at brunch.”
Brunch in a big city is often crowded, and digestively as well as acoustically abrasive. Brunch feels stressful, and rote. The aesthetic sameness from one brunch restaurant to the next is striking, with minor variances: the achingly “authentic” farm tables and Feist music; the white walls and vintage objets of a simpler time. I’ve had hipster brunch (a distinct category, far from the golf club brunch with granny) in many cities, and in London, Detroit and Toronto, the rusty milk tin has appeared as a decor focal point. The possibility that brunch is a fatuous weekend wank-off for the privileged cool kid set was articulated by Julian Casablancas, lead singer of The Strokes, who explained in an interview in GQ magazine why he moved away from New York City: “I don’t know how many, like, white people having brunch I can deal with on a Saturday afternoon.”
Yet brunch endures as a growing, lucrative trend in the restaurant business. One reason is the decline of breakfast, which is actually about the rise of busy-ness. The sit-down, healthy breakfast has been disappearing for decades as work-obsessed people maximize their morning time with a protein bar and a takeout coffee. In this work-first climate, the prospect of a weekly meal around a table holds huge appeal. At the same time, chefs are realizing that brunch is an opportunity to play to foodies, and menus have vastly improved from the eggs benny days. When Vogue recently listed its best brunches in London, 2017, it was hard not to rush straight to Peruvian superfood restaurant Andina for Camote pancakes (sweet potato pancakes, spiced chancaca honey, coconut whipped cream, seasonal fruits and dry physallis. Whatever physallis is, I want some).
But perhaps brunch’s true appeal is that it can provide social cohesion at a time when community is fractured, and so many people feel isolated. At its best, brunch facilitates human, non-digital connection (except for the Instagram part). Especially in cities, where we often don’t live near family, brunch is a time for chosen family, and so it often takes place on Sunday, traditionally the day for gathering with one’s tribe over a meal.
The question is: Could we create this convivality elsewhere on the weekend? Could we come together to break bread at home, or in a park, or over a potluck? Limiting the restaurant brunch to once a month will free up that precious weekend time. Imagine a Sunday morning where more rejuvenating activities (reading! Creating! Walking!) replace the clatter and cost, where the worries and cobwebs of the week are truly swept away, and no one has to queue.
(This essay is adapted from Katrina's book, The Weekend Effect.)
ELLY PEAR'S "WEEKEND BRUNCH FOR FOUR PEOPLE WITH SLIGHTLY SORE HEADS"
Shezza Bezza Mary
- 200ml vodka
- 400ml beetroot juice
- 200ml tomato juice
- 25ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 15 shakes of Worcestershire sauce
- 12 shakes of Tabasco, preferably smoked
- 100ml Fino sherry
- 1/2 tsp table salt
- 1/4–1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp celery salt
- Plenty of ice
- 4 celery sticks, leaves intact
- 1 raw candy-stripe beetroot, sliced very finely
- Pinch of smoked paprika
- Pinch of sumac
- Put everything, except the ice and garnishes, into a jug and stir well. If you can, leave it for half an hour before serving (ha ha, yeah right, like that’s gonna happen).
- When you are ready to serve, give the mixture a good stir and adjust as necessary. Fill 4 glasses with ice cubes, pour over the mixture and garnish each glass with a celery stick, a slice or two of very finely cut raw beetroot, a sprinkle of smoked paprika and a sprinkle of sumac. Serve with the smoked Tabasco and the Worcestershire sauce at the table so people can add more if they like.
Veggie Haggis One-Pan Fry Up
- 500g vegetarian haggis
- 300g potatoes, halved or quartered if large
- Olive oil
- 8 chestnut mushrooms, sliced
- 1 large knob of butter
- 4–8 free-range eggs, depending on how hungry you are
- Big handful of watercress
- Flaked sea salt
- Cook the haggis according to the packet instructions. If you have a microwave this is very quick. If you don’t (like me), you need to do it in the oven, which takes a while. The haggis will burst as it cooks but that’s fine, as you will crumble it up later anyway.
- Put the potatoes in a saucepan, cover with cold water and a pinch of flaked sea salt, place over a high heat, bring to the boil, then lower the heat to medium and cook for 10–12 minutes until tender. Drain in a colander and leave to steam dry.
- In your largest frying pan, heat some olive oil over a medium heat and fry the mushrooms for 5 minutes until golden on both sides. Tip onto a plate and set aside.
- Return the pan to a high heat, add the butter with a splash more olive oil and once melted, fry the cooked potatoes until golden. I like plenty of crunchy bits but you will only achieve this if you don’t move the potatoes around too much. Leaving them to sit in a pan over a high heat will result in some delicious crispy chunks.
- When the potatoes are done, push them to one side. Crumble in the haggis and stir-fry for a few minutes.
- Make a gap and tip in the mushrooms. In a separate pan, fry the eggs in a little oil over a medium heat, then place them on top of everything in the pan and garnish with watercress. Let everybody help themselves from the pan. Serve with tea and HP Sauce.
This recipe is taken from Elly Curshen’s new book, Let’s Eat! Out now