Brunch, the bastard child of breakfast and lunch, just happens to be the life of the morning after the night before party. It’s the one not-so-early morning meal you plan for, not plan around. So, where did this interloper of weekend meals come from? And why do we continue to love it so much?
The most common explanation of Brunch’s existence is that it was birthed from the old British Hunting Breakfasts. Most books and authors start there. The word “Brunch” first appears in Hunters Weekly in 1895. Its popularity grew so quickly, that Brunch earned a mention in 1896 in the venerable British magazine, Punch;
“To be fashionable nowadays we must ‘brunch’. Truly an excellent portmanteau word, introduced, by the way, last year, by Mr. Guy Beringer, in the now defunct Hunter’s Weekly, and indicating a combined breakfast and lunch.”
Those early brunches were a multi-course meal featuring a smorgasbord of dishes like chicken livers, eggs, meats, bacon, grilled sheep’s kidneys, jams, jellies, fruit and sweets. In the Victorian era, kedgeree might also have been on the menu. It’s a dish comprising of flaked fish (often smoked haddock), rice, parsley, boiled egg, curry and butter or cream. If you thought a turkey dinner would put you to sleep, it has nothing on those early brunches.
Brunch came to North America by the 1930’s. While some historians just assume that the birthplace of brunch is New York via the transcontinental steamers, there are others that say it started in Chicago. Travel in those early days took a lot longer and Chicago was the perfect layover location between New York and Los Angeles. A late morning meal between transcontinental trains was a no-brainer. It worked with schedules and with the leisurely state of travel.
Hotels pushed the concept into the public discourse. On Sundays, actors like John Barrymore, Helen Hayes and Clark Gable stopped to Brunch at the famed Pump Room at the Ambassador Hotel in Chicago. This was the best PR the meal could get. Everyone stepped onto the Brunch bandwagon, including restaurants who ran with it as Church attendance flagged.
Incidentally, during this time period, you also see the rise of serving alcohol with Brunch. The rebel in me likes the idea that Brunch and dubious morality seem to go hand in hand.
If you want to gather an idea of what a Brunch menu might look like in this time period check out the 1937 cookbook by Marjorie Hillis and Bertina Foltz called, Corned Beef and Caviar. Meals are assigned gender identifications, and one particular chapter focuses on how to get a man with a meal.
The rise of Brunch took another turn after World War II as women entered the workforce and Brunch became the meal that represented a break for them on a slow-paced Sunday. Sociologist Farha Ternikar’s book, Brunch: A History, uses brunch menus to trace the history of Brunch and the influence it has on everything from who we are, what we want in different eras, what’s available to us, and how we spend our time. She goes so far as to draw a line between Brunch and the Feminist Movement.
Brunch is far more fascinating than most would assume. It’s a meal with a strong sociological history. It says something about how society, both morals and freedoms, have grown over the last hundred plus years. There are some great articles available online if you want to know more, and you can still buy Marjorie Hillis’ books on Amazon.
Brunch is the “Bad Boy” meal of the week, and that makes me love it even more. After all, who doesn’t love a little rebellion in their weekend?
Film Recommendation: The Breakfast Club (1985). It’s a fitting choice. The 80’S saw a great boom in Brunch, and who doesn’t love Bad Boy Bender as played by Judd Nelson?
Michelle Muldoon is a writer, filmmaker, and avid foodie. You can find her on twitter @chat2michelle.