David Shaftel lambasted brunch (and brunchers) in an article for the New York Times, and his argument has gotten a lot of attention. He complained that brunch is “a twice-weekly symbol of our culture’s increasing desire to reject adulthood,” a ritualization of waking up late and drinking alcohol before lunch:
In neighborhoods like mine, where everyone seems to be from somewhere else, people are increasingly alienated from their extended and nuclear families. While Sundays were traditionally reserved for family, we now have crowds of unfettered young(ish) people with no limitations on their pursuit of weekend leisure, who seem bent on making New York feel like one big rerun of “Friends” or “Sex and the City.” Here, and many other places, friends have become family and brunch the family gathering.
The friends aren’t the problem, of course. Brunch is. Seasoned with the self-satisfaction of knowing the latest and hippest brunch boîte and the pleasure of ordering eggs Benedict made with jamón Ibérico and duck eggs, something so fundamentally conformist can seem like the height of urban sophistication. Worse than adolescent, it is an adolescent’s idea of how adults spend their time.
Many people who responded to Shaftel’s comments had good defenses: they said brunch offered a break from frenzied workweek mornings. That it was a time for them to gather with family, or friends who felt like family. That it’s a cheaper, and often a healthier way to enjoy eating out on a weekend.
Others agreed with Shaftel, with relish. They complained that brunch is expensive, that the food is mediocre, and that it throws off the entire weekend meal schedule. Perhaps the best agreement piece came from Bee Wilson at The New Republic, in which she argued that part of the brunch problem is American’s weird rules about when and where they can eat eggs. Her solution to brunch mayhem? Eat more eggs for dinner!
But few of the articles are addressing one of the most interesting elements of Shaftel’s piece—the bit where he says, “People are increasingly alienated from their extended and nuclear families. While Sundays were traditionally reserved for family, we now have crowds of unfettered young(ish) people with no limitations on their pursuit of weekend leisure … friends have become family and brunch the family gathering.”
Wilson echoes this angle a bit in her piece, when she references the huge family dinners and roasts of days past:
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.
This immediately drew me back to my childhood: Sundays when, around 2 p.m., my family would gather at the grandparents’ for a big family dinner. The food varied, but each family brought a contribution, and we all ate together. We spent the afternoon watching Sunday football games, playing outside with the younger kids, deliberating over complicated strategy games, sharing gossip in the kitchen as we cleaned the dishes.
But here’s the thing: this sort of community gathering didn’t have to happen over a 2 p.m. meal. My family could have done the exact same thing over brunch, and alternated the dishes accordingly. The point was never what we ate (though that was always a bonus)—it was that we spent time together. For some families I know, weekend brunch is a huge family ritual—with homemade pancakes, sweet rolls, or quiche. Everyone wakes up slowly, then makes their way into the kitchen and helps prep breakfast. It’s leisurely, it’s delicious—it is brunch, but very different from the “brunch” picture that Shaftel paints.
This sort of weekend family gathering seems to have fallen out of fashion, at least in many cosmopolitan corners of America; and I wonder how many people nationwide still gather on weekends to spend time with their siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews. I think Shaftel is right to complain about the loss of a meal ritual that was warm, simple, organic, and family-friendly. Modern brunch can feel like a simplified version of those traditional gatherings, young people trying to mimic the traditions they grew up with. But Shaftel’s judgments do feel too harsh. It’s good to keep communal rituals alive, however we can. And for the cosmopolitan, weekend meals probably won’t look the same as they did growing up. I know that mine do not.
Weekend meals should be a flexible, varied thing. When we eat it, how we eat it, and where: all of this really depends on the individual. The most important thing is the fellowship: that we gather with family and friends, with the people we love. Better to drink an overpriced mimosa and eat a mediocre eggs benedict than to miss that fellowship altogether.