In Defense of Brunch

Shawn Micallef’s provocative and insightful book, ‘The Trouble with Brunch’ challenges us to rethink our obsession with brunch, and to critically consider what this overpriced, messy meal really says about shifting class identities in today’s world.

The Trouble with Brunch: Work, Class and the Pursuit of Leisure
Shawn Micallef
Coach House
August 2014

Shawn Micallef, who dislikes brunch, chose to grapple with these “extended, uncomfortable meals” by writing a book on the subject. The award-winning writer and Toronto Star columnist who is also senior editor and co-owner of the acclaimed independent magazine Spacing, undertook the project not to retaliate against the friends and colleagues who once upon a time dragged him out to brunch (before he acquired the social capital to say ‘no’). “…even though I liked the people I was with, brunch was not an enjoyable way to be with them,” he says in their defense.

His is a broader project – a humanitarian one, perhaps – to understand the motivations which compel his overworked, underpaid, precariously-employed friends to “[squander] their precious free time on something as onerous as this chronically unsatisfying meal.” What his exploration reveals is that brunch – the deployment of leisure in conspicuous consumption – offers a unique vantage point into the confused, shifting and self-denying class identities of our present era. The critique of brunch turns into an exploration of class; how the working class seems unable to preserve the unity it once had; how the middle class “continues to be in denial of what it is while disregarding the things that are in its best interest to pay attention to”; and how the creative class seems unable to recognize that it is a class at all.

This is no dry Marxism: it’s an entertaining and wide-ranging exploration of modern urban life, from the class contradictions of gentrification to the complexities of café culture to the eco-politics of farmers’ markets. Smart and witty yet eminently accessible, Micallef’s approach draws on social theory sparingly but as necessary; the book is crafted first and foremost around insightful reflections on his own diversity of experiences. It allows him to reflect on his working-class background in Windsor, the long-suffering auto-factory capital of Canada (during an era when unionized factory jobs still afforded comfortable, secure lifestyles), and his transition into the middle class after moving to Toronto to pursue a career in writing and the broader creative community. His study draws on material from Portland to Buenos Aires; brunch is a global phenomenon as are many of the social and class processes imprecated in its materialistic manifestations. He explores the history of brunch, and discusses it with professors and researchers who study the phenomenon.

What his study succeeds in doing is shining a light on the many contradictions within urban class structures. So-called progressives, the ‘brunching class’, will campaign vociferously to keep Wal-Mart from moving into their communities, yet campaign just as vociferously to protect local commercial establishments like Toronto’s ‘Honest Ed’s’ department store (which, Micallef notes, is little more than a Wal-Mart clone under a different name and gaudy exterior). It’s considered progressive to denounce Wal-Mart and discount bulk food shops as threatening ‘authentic’ working-class communities, yet most of today’s actually authentic working-class families rely on such establishments for their affordability and their one-stop efficiency (in an era when the leisure time to go shopping is shrinking at an alarming rate).

Similarly, middle-class homeowners battle against condos and gentrification even though it was their purchase of homes in neighbourhoods that were seen as ‘authentically’ hip and trendy which brought those very forces upon them. His case study of the Ossington Avenue neighbourhood in Toronto is revealing: homeowners who protested against condo developments “were the very people complicit in Ossington’s transformation, cranking up home prices and changing the nature of retail on the main street. Now they were demanding that the street be frozen in time and that these transformations stop.” Neither condos nor gentrified homes constitute affordable housing, Micallef admits, but still the protestors’ actions had the effect of denying “somewhat cheaper homes for people a few rungs down the economic ladder”.

Complicity is an important theme here, and Micallef broaches it with un-self-conscious honesty. In the case of gentrification, he says “people should consider how the fruits of gentrification can be reconciled with caring about who gets shut out. I’ve seen it myself in lefty planner and urbanist friends who get the most upset about affordable housing and hipsters but frequent the new bars and see the bands that inhabit exactly these contested spaces, driving up prices. If experts and the passionate amateurs who are trained to think critically about urbanism can overlook their own complicity in the processes they criticize, then it must be just as easy to obfuscate one’s own class sensibility when defending a working-class neighbourhood while rejecting those in it.”

Of course, wide-ranging though Micallef’s analysis is, brunch remains at the heart of his argument. It constitutes a modern-day form of ‘conspicuous consumption’, in which what matters is not so much the quality of the eggs and ham as the fact of being seen (preferably lounging at a table over a third cup of coffee while envious and hungry patrons stand queuing in line, trying their best not to look envious and hungry and queuing). Status – and affirmation of one’s class identity, however constructed it might be – accrues through the act of being seen conspicuously squandering leisure time over afternoon-long brunches in an era where time is fast becoming the most precious commodity.

In Defense of Brunch

Micallef’s elegantly written arguments are compelling; his use of brunch as a point of entry into considering shifting class identities – and why we need to bring ‘class’ back into the centre of public conversation – offers a creative and convincing approach to a complex topic. The book opens an important conversation.

But there’s more to the matter of brunch.

As Micallef’s observations demonstrate, most people want to experience and have nice things. The question of what constitutes ‘nice things’ – are they intrinsically of worth because of something in their own nature, or simply because of an artifice of class trendiness that’s been arbitrarily imposed on them, and because of the resulting status they endow on the bearer [bruncher]? – is indeed a question worthy of being asked, but at the same time there’s an innate experiential curiosity to many people which may help explain their desire to brunch.

Economics, Class, and Diversity

Brunch can be over-priced and of mediocre quality, but at other times it can be the only affordable way to experience something unique. Using Toronto as an example, I happen to love Persian food, but some of the tastiest Persian spots in my West End neighbourhood – Pomegranate and its sister bistro Scheherazade – are both slightly above my regular price range (not even counting the cost of drinks). Yet a more recent Persian brunch spot called Tavoos opened by the same company offers many of the same flavours and ingredients for half the price.

Likewise, as a vegetarian who has been vegan at various points, I know how hard it can be to find exciting and diverse new places to go when you want to treat yourself to an unusual meal without the time and effort of making it yourself. One spot I enjoy eating at is ‘Live Raw Food Bar’ in the Annex neighbourhood which, despite its down-to-earth name, is in fact quite upscale when it comes to pricing. A meal with appetizers and dessert will easily approach $50, even without drinks. Brunch, on the other hand, is consistently more affordable, with a $10 wrap or a $15 breakfast burrito.

And at many of these spots, it’s also the only way one can easily access and experience some of the less common ingredients the culinary world has to offer. Members of the ‘brunching class’ – those urbanites who eschew Wal-Mart for trendy ‘independent’ shops in urban downtowns – might know where to find gobo root, or burdock, or cashew ricotta, or umeboshi salad dressing. But you won’t be finding them at Wal-Mart; not even in the ‘ethnic aisle’.

Indeed, much as brunch can be an excuse for overpricing the dregs of the week’s dishes, it can also be an excuse for challenging the stylishness of conspicuous consumption. Take Toronto breakfast spots like New York Café in the East End, Aris Place in Roncesvalles, or Tat Burger in Little Portugal – all of which offer substantial breakfasts for under $5. At Boom’s various locations you can even get eggs, toast, salad, frites and ‘locally smoked pork loin’ for under $10. Meanwhile, a restaurant on downtown Yonge Street advertising $5 gourmet sushi rolls or $8 steaks would probably attract more attention from food inspectors than patrons. Yet somehow it’s acceptable to offer reasonable prices for bacon and eggs and hash browns and toast. Perhaps because it’s more readily apparent to us, who often have these very ingredients in our own fridges, that that’s what a meal of those products should cost.

Interestingly, of course, such spots often advertise themselves as ‘breakfast’, not ‘brunch’ – perhaps a reflection of Micallef’s astute observations around the class and lifestyle associations brunch has come to connote. Will breakfast become the new brunch?

Variety and Identity

For that matter, what’s wrong with defining taste and identity through our food inclinations? In a world that urgently needs to come to grips with unsustainable consumption patterns, food fetishes might prove an unexpected salvation. Defining ourselves through our selection of weekend skillets or brunch burgers could be a much more sustainable means of expressing individuality than traditional material markers of identity such as cars or fur coats, even when the constituent components are taken into account. When it comes to brunch spots that do make an added effort to source their ingredients justly and sustainably (admittedly a more complicated endeavor than it sounds) it further reduces the detrimental impact of material consumption choices on the world.

Of course, one could rightly argue that neither deep-fried bacon-wrapped bison burgers nor SUV’s represent defensible material lifestyle choices. But humanity is a fickle and imperfect species, and the likelihood that we will leap wholesale from the current global mess into a sustainable utopia is unduly idealistic. Once again, we are left with the reality that people like good things. People are also often lazy, greedy, and think in the short-term. These qualities are unlikely to change in the near future.

Perhaps one of the better approaches to reforming the world’s consumption problems is to tackle them as a matter of scale. Yes, most things in our daily western lifestyle are, on a global scale, unsustainable. So why not start valuing the more sustainable, and gradually cut out the most excessive? Incremental change isn’t a popular approach among most progressives, who rightly observe that it takes too much time (and clamour instead for the revolution). But the revolution remains elusive. In its place, or while we wait, let’s start valuing the small things that make life more sustainable. Instead of buying the latest e-reader (devices which are in fact much more environmentally destructive than paper books, a quality exacerbated by the urge to purchase the latest model every six- to 12-months), stick to used paperbacks and use some of the money you’ve saved to treat yourself to brunch once a month.

Aspirational Dining

In this, I’m reminded of the period I lived in Japan. Japan, perhaps moreso than anywhere in the world, has excelled at the art of specialization. For every craft, every art, every sport, every hobby one can engage in, there are local variants and specialties and sub-specialties. And this extends to food. People travel across the country to sample that famous type of miso from Miyagi, Echizen crab from Fukui, okonomiyaki ‘pancakes’ from Hiroshima, kasutera sponge cakes from Nagasaki, or that deep-fried flying fish from the distant (and beautiful) island of Yakushima. I had friends who crafted entire annual family vacations around a visit to a neighbouring prefecture to sample their particular style of chicken soup (while enjoying the unique qualities of the local bathing springs in the evening, and taking kids to see the unique local method of paper-making in a nearby village during the day).

We need to engage in a collective discussion around what nice things we can all have.

This isn’t to depict Japan as a paragon of sustainability – it’s also full of excessive modern amusement parks and infamous cement-lined river-beds. Anyone who’s ever purchased a quick snack from a Japanese corner-store (they’re now widely available in North America) has wrestled with the mind-boggling assortment of plastic and wrapping it contains (individually wrapped cookies and potato crisps, for instance; or potato chips where the chips and the flavouring are both separately and cumulatively wrapped, something like a Russian nesting doll).

The point is that the extent and variety of food specialization, refined over the centuries, offers a much more sustainable and equally enjoyable alternative. If we learn to value more inexpensive local experiences – like trying that new Mexican-Korean brunch spot down the street – as much as we currently value the latest model of wall-sized television or a vacation in Vegas, maybe the former can start to actually take the place of the latter. And the world might be better off for it.

This is not to suggest that the foods comprising brunch are innocent, inexpensive items with little ecological footprint. Quite the opposite: agriculture, meat and other food industries have an enormous impact on the environment, especially when they are conducted in non-sustainable ways as most of them, globally, are. But this is something that can be changed, and given that we have to eat anyway (unlike most other leisure activities, most of which do not contribute in direct ways to our immediate survival) it makes sense for us to concentrate on reforming agricultural and food industry practices at the same time as we cultivate greater creative and aesthetic interests in how and what we eat.

Spending two or three hours sitting around talking over a brunch that is sustainably derived can not only strengthen social (and thus community) bonds, but it’s also two to three hours that we’re not driving around our gas-guzzling cars or out shopping for new electronic toys that we don’t need. We certainly won’t glean any ecological benefits as long as brunch is centered around bacon-wrapped bison burgers, but there must be a balance that can be achieved somewhere between the meaty excesses of bacon benny, the marked-up and class-inflected excesses of gourmet kale chips, the bowl of rice-porridge that still comprises a basic staple for far too much of the world, and the bland-looking bowls of multi-coloured cubes which fed the crew of the starship Enterprise in the original Star Trek series.