Brunch and Foolishness
The word brunch is utterly stupid, and New Yorkers self-consciously eschew stupid things, as if it’s their contribution to civilization. But if you ever move to New York, you’ll be standing at a party and a slightly tipsy someone will forcefully declare to you, bright-eyed, waving a rum and coke, that “New Yorkers love brunch.”
You’ll think about how pretentious that statement is, and then you’ll start to notice that pretty much every restaurant in Manhattan and Brooklyn serves the same menu from ten o’clock to two o’clock, sometimes four, on weekends. The magical brunching hour.
And soon you, too, will become a New Yorker, and you, too, will love brunch, with its unembarrassed menus of upscale hangover cures (ever-more-inventive upgrades on the spicy Bloody Mary, fluffy feta-stuffed omelets, french toast stuffed with mascarpone, big grilled cheese sandwiches with Parma ham) and its air of relaxation. For what could be more indulgent, more civilized, more lap-of-luxury than lazing at a sidewalk table with your sunglasses and your comfortably chic sweater dress and four friends laughing nearby, or your husband and a book and a bottomless cup of passably good coffee?
Of course I knew the word brunch before I moved into Greenwich Village, the languid seat of haute civilization, but I grew up in the suburbs and then a plot of land out in the country, daughter of the working class, and we didn’t do brunch, except maybe on Christmas Day. We did breakfast (eggs and toast) and lunch (soup and grilled cheese) and dinner (chicken and potatoes), and sometimes a bedtime snack (popcorn). Brunch was a funny word for breakfast when you slept in really late. Or something at Grandma’s, in pajamas, after sleeping over with cousins: chocolate chip pancakes, sausages, hot chocolate.
I can’t remember my first brunch that first summer in New York, but by early fall I’d fallen in with a rotating group of acquaintances and a core cast of friends: one with a gorgeous apartment and the rare, coveted commodity of a table to eat at, one who worked in commercial realty and had inexplicably been to cooking school, a student at a design school nearby, a filmmaker, and, somehow, me.
The glorious lazy times we spent around that table, midday, with pear tarts, and roasted chickens and whole fishes, and buckwheat pancakes, and bottles of wine and good bread. We were grown-ups, all on equal footing despite the spread of age and education and experience between us. We could leave the scraps on the table and go down the street to Film Forum for a matinee. We could boldly start our meal with fresh orange-scented chocolate chip cookies, or watch through the north-facing wall of windows as the sun crossed from east to west, past the Chrysler Tower, behind the Empire State Building, and through the West Side’s trees. We let the day fade away, together, in glorious companionship, confident nothing could change our world.
Ridiculous, really: a year later we’d all be headed in separate directions, one to Seattle to marry and settle down, one to DC to save other corners of the world, one home for the summer once classes ended, and then the two of us, just the filmmaker and me, moving from Manhattan to Brooklyn to make a life for ourselves together.
* * *
Planning our wedding reception, we chose brunch, with french toast and scrambled eggs and biscuits and gravy (a nod to my in-laws’ roots in backwoods Virginia) and apple crisp (a nod to my roots in Yankee country) and good coffee. “Everyone loves brunch,” we said by way of explanation.
Then Dad died, very suddenly, too soon, and we canceled the brunch. Sometimes I still think about all those eggs and the bread and the gallons of syrup, and I imagine that brunch and what it would have been like. If it would have been any good. If I, too clumsy to wear white, would have dripped syrup on my dress. If we had invited someone who was gluten intolerant and forgotten to put something wheat-free on the menu. If people would have gone away pleased.
What we did, in the end, was transform the sandwich platters my in-laws had ordered for our rehearsal dinner into our wedding meal, laid out under a tent in the backyard where we married a couple days after we’d planned, and concluded it with cheesecakes. An awkward meal to celebrate the beginning of a marriage, which is, in turn, always a foolish proposition, no matter how you look at it. Check any New York restaurant’s weekend menu: lunch food is brunch, too.
* * *
Nobody seems to know where the foolish word came from—a portmanteau of breakfast and lunch, obviously, but we don’t say lupper or dunch. Someone claims a reporter for the New York Morning Sun coined it in the early twentieth century as a way to describe the way a morning newspaper man ate: frenzied, I suppose, too busy to eat breakfast.
I gave up breakfast a long time ago, when I realized it just makes me hungry for lunch hours too early, but I think that portmanteau-inventing reporter and I, teaching college freshmen to wrangle words in the early mornings, are kindred souls. My students note on evaluations that I become more animated by the bottom of my coffee cup, and my midday classes pepper their evaluations with comments about my snacking choices. I gather their comments at the end of the semester and spend a happy hour laughing my way through them, seeing the shape of my semester through their eyes.
This job of mine is a silly undertaking. It pays very little and requires too much work and more than a bit of hand-wringing, and it asks me to invest into kids who will sometimes break my heart and sometimes make me love them, but while they think college goes on forever, I know they’ll be gone in a few years anyhow. Like the newspaper man, I only eat brunch anymore, and sometimes linner, or maybe just a late-night snack.
* * *
Wall Street melted down while I stood in a pizza joint late one night on the Upper East Side with my husband, eating a slice and listening to the radio. We’d been at the Ninety-Second Street Y for a celebration of Maurice Sendak’s eightieth birthday, the sort of star-studded affair you start to take for granted here, and when we stopped to eat, we realized that Lehman Brothers had basically disappeared while we were inside.
My husband was working in film and I had just quit my full-time job to work for two nonprofits and I was suddenly terrified that I’d be laid off and we’d be destitute, and as I choked my way through the rest of the pizza and then into the next two months, I worried endlessly. I had done a very silly thing, quitting a good job that paid my graduate school tuition to chase a dream. I was choosing to play with ideas and artists over the steady work I was trained to do.
But for now, we had an income. Our friends: not so lucky. Each week, more became unemployed or underemployed.
Sitting one day in church, praying to know how to help, I realized that there was at least one thing I could do: I could make a meal and invite everyone we knew. At least they’d get a square meal. The first month, a dozen people showed up. The next month, fifteen. A year later, the group had grown so large we could hardly cram everyone into our five hundred square feet of studio apartment; friends sat on the chairs and the edge of the bed and spilled onto the floors and into the hallway.
Sheer idiocy, when you think about it. Figuring out how to feed a group of an unpredictable size requires time I don’t have, skills I never acquired, and a couple of extra pots and burners.
* * *
Our church meets at eleven in the morning, and our liturgy positions the Eucharist near the end, so each week we serve the bread and wine around twelve fifteen. I rarely eat before the service, and I am hungry by then, and I frequently remember Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians that folks ought not to partake in the most sacred of tables seeking to fill their stomachs. But the bite of pita bread and gulp of wine isn’t stomach filling. And it leaves me thinking—always, and often so soon it reminds me of my mortality—of brunch: both what we’ll have when the service concludes, and that this thing I do, this sacred meal in which I partake each week, like brunch, looks profoundly foolish from two paces away.
I watch as people line up to partake, and I know I have little in common with these people, and they have little in common with me. We’d never meet if we never came within these walls. The meal we’re about to share is not good: inexpensive wine, semi-stale pita from the corner grocery. And yet we return to it every week, in the middle of the day, on a Sunday, when the rest of the city sits at sidewalk cafes. We line up in celebration and solemnity and tell each other that this is Christ’s body, broken for you; this is Christ’s blood, shed for you, and we know we’re a bit mad.
But two paces in, standing to receive this unlikely meal with this unlikely family, the foolishness is sweeter than whatever meatball sliders or panini or flapjacks await me, sweeter than the coffee I need, sweet enough to keep me from pushing away what looks foolish to the wondering world.
Alissa Wilkinson teaches at the King’s College in New York City and edits Comment. She and her husband Tom like the brunch at Dizzy’s in Brooklyn best.