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

The Hungry Global Middle Class

The potential brunch benefits resonate with particular power in a world of aspiring global middle-classes. Yes, the ‘middle-class’ in the West is in decline, but it’s (arguably) rising in other parts of the world. Talking about the ‘emerging middle classes’ of Asia, Africa and other formerly colonized parts of the world is complicated and contentious, but in a world where for generations people have been deprived of nice things (as the cost of providing the western world with a disproportionate and excessive quantity and range of nice things) a balance is going to have to be achieved if this planet is to survive. Saying that the era of nice things is over (because we in the West used them all up) isn’t going to cut it for these aspiring peoples and regions. As Sam Gindin recently put it in his December 2014 article ‘When History Knocks’, published in Jacobin magazine:

“…though the issue of consumerism must be taken on, simply calling for a more austere lifestyle only reinforces the austerity pushed by capitalist states. The issue is not just living with “less” but living differently — which can also mean better.”

“It is about an alternative society. And to the extent that some sacrifices are indeed necessary, these must involve both a radical equality of sacrifice and one that sees such sacrifices as “investments” in transforming society, rather than concessions to preserve capitalism.”

We need, in other words, to engage in a collective discussion around what nice things we can all have. This will require compromise while acknowledging that the value of the human experience is still for many of us reflected in the creative diversity of our consumption choices. Offering choices which still permit enjoyable diversity while reducing impact will be key in this process. And the role of food in all of this will be a central one. Not least because, unlike cars and casinos and Disney rides, we actually do need it to survive.

Diversity and Identity on the Table

There are other reasons to defend brunch, however. Take the Persian restaurant chain I discussed earlier. As full-scale restaurants Pomegranate and Scheherazade are also fully licensed, with an admirable array of wines and cocktails. At brunch spot Tavoos, you’ll find nothing more dizzying than a dynamite cup of mint tea. This is appreciated by some patrons, who for lifestyle, religious or cultural reasons find it awkward to take themselves or their families out to licensed restaurants where the alcohol flows freely.

Now I’m the furthest thing from a teetotaller there is – in fact I ardently advocate against abstemiousness as a matter of principle – but I’m also sensitive to the challenges people who eschew alcohol can face in trying to find opportunities to socialize and engage in leisure activities with their more alcoholic beverage preferred colleagues and friends. I have abstentious Muslim, Hindu and even Christian friends who much prefer the suggestion of brunch over dinner, not because they want to look cool, but because it means there’ll be no awkward navigating that alcohol divide which can sometimes prove a barrier in cross-cultural socializing.

This is not, of course, a universal rule; as Micallef notes, brunch is also one of the few times when it’s socially acceptable to drink alcohol during the day, whether in the form of mimosas or full pints of craft beer. But of restaurants that focus primarily on brunch, I would wager a greater percentage are not licensed to serve alcohol. Indeed, why would you go to the trouble of getting a license and stocking a bar if only a minority of patrons actually are of the mimosas-at-high-noon inclination?

And even if they are licensed, there’s less pressure to drink. Being the only one without a glass of wine at a restaurant dinner with work colleagues – especially if the boss is paying – can really make you feel the odd one out. But just as a mimosa might be acceptable for brunch, it also doesn’t raise eyebrows when you take a pass on the drink menu. In fact, you’re treated as the norm if you eschew alcohol at brunch; quite the opposite of how you’re treated if you go out with friends to dinner.

It’s also useful to observe that the form of brunch – if not its shifting class attributes – has important cultural connections, too. Going out for dim sum, for example, has become an ardently trendy hipster practice (now probably surpassed by artisanal skillets at the faux working-class joints Micallef describes), but I have friends of Chinese descent for whom it represented an important regular opportunity for extended family gatherings. Brunch can be a rallying point for ethnic or immigrant communities, and even for those struggling to preserve or strengthen their own cultural traditions.

In St. John’s Newfoundland, the Celtic Hearth – an otherwise un-noteworthy 24-hour restaurant in the downtown – offers Sunday ‘Jiggs Dinner’ brunch, preserving with pride an important local food tradition. Indeed, it came to fill the gap left by the closure of Velma’s Restaurant – another cheap diner that used to provide traditional Newfoundland home-cooked breakfasts. The culinary benefits of ‘Jiggs dinner’ – a mash-up of salt beef with corned beef cabbage hash – are debateable. But the point is that for many Newfoundlanders it evokes fond memories of childhood weekend meals in their rural hometowns, and preserves a sense of pride in local history and cultural tradition.

That community-strengthening quality of brunch can adopt many forms. It can unite those of Middle Eastern descent, or those hailing from Hong Kong. It can unite settler-descended Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. It can even unite music aficionados: the ‘Black Metal Brunch’, a delightful weekly event put off at Graffiti’s Bar in Kensington Market for almost a decade, features a shifting weekly menu of eclectic home-cooked brunch specials accompanied by dark coffees and heavy doses of black metal music. Brunch can transcend class by embracing identity.

So brunch hath its merits. But if anything, all of this reinforces Micallef’s main assertion, and the brilliant angle of his approach, that the cultural politics and economics of brunch offer an excellent and important point of entry to considering contemporary issues of class. To be honest, I don’t think we’re that far apart (even though I happen to love a good leisurely brunch at my local Nordic smokehouse).

Ultimately, Micallef isn’t really proposing to end brunch or other aspiring middle class pursuits, either. What he’s really proposing is a more conscious, conscientious approach to our urban (and suburban) lifestyles, and one that is not afraid to talk honestly about class in terms that reflect today’s realities. “A reset of class identity is needed so we have a more honest appreciation of who we are and how our own behaviours, tastes and desires affect others,” he writes.

It’s a good point, and a timely one. Anthony Lloyd, in his ethnographic study of call centres, Labour Markets and Identity on the Post-Industrial Assembly Line, published in 2013, emphasizes that class identity is no longer defined by close ties to a workplace as it once was. Work and social identity no longer intersect the way they once did; among Lloyd’s call centre workers “social relationships were mediated by work rather than through community bonds resulting in them feeling no durable sense of attachment or obligation to one another…Work is no longer regarded as the ultimate status symbol; rather the ability to display status through consumption and leisure is the social indicator of contemporary society.” In other words, where once upon a time in factory towns workers lived, worked, played (and brunched) all together, today our lives are quite divorced from those of our co-workers; we form our own communities, largely based around lifestyle and consumption patterns. As a result, it becomes hard to recognize class identity.

Micallef himself acknowledges his shifting class identity: he no longer temps at call centres or has to network as assiduously as he once did to pay his bills; he has, in short, achieved the sort of success which still eludes many in the ‘creative class’ (of which the book also offers a useful analysis). “I find the middle-class desirable, and as I continue to slide into this comfortable sensibility, I never want to lose sight of the edge. I want to keep the critical perspective that growing up in Windsor gave me.”

“The global potential for class consciousness via lifestyle pursuits seems great,” he writes, and it’s not a bad thing. Nor is living comfortably. But the question we need to ask, as Micallef does, is this: at what cost to ourselves, to our community, and to the wider world? And how do we achieve a just balance? Insofar as the troubles with brunch are part of that bigger question, it’s a good place to start in trying to answer it.