New York departee Julian Casablancas may not have noticed it until 2014, but rich white people eating brunch is nothing new.
According to Farha Ternikar, the sociologist and author of Brunch: A History, the story of the meal everyone loves to hate begins in 1896, when the tradition of a weekend not-quite-lunch made landfall in New York. Its antecedents date back to the United Kingdom and the “hunt breakfast,” where servants would prepare a day’s catch after the hunting party returned, resulting in a later-than-usual eating time.
In America, the “hunt breakfast” was more along the lines of eggs and toast as opposed to venison, necessitating a new name. (Still, meat remained an integral part of brunch in the form of bacon, bacon, and more bacon.) The portmanteau didn’t catch on immediately; initially, brunch was known as the “varsity meal” for its association with (hungover) college students. In other words, brunch was the domain of the privileged from the very beginning—this being 1896, contemporary college students were almost universally well-off, white, and male.
Speaking to an audience at Manhattan’s New School at an event coordinated by the Culinary Historians of New York, Ternikar explained that brunch has since undergone three distinct phases.
Though it had been around for more than two decades by the time Prohibition went into effect in 1920, brunch didn’t really take off until the wealthy—i.e., those who still had access to alcohol and the freedom to imbibe without fear of repercussions—began using it as an opportunity to day drink, inaugurating the time-honored custom of washing down French toast with mimosas and Bloody Marys.
Phase two began in the 1950s, when the stigma against day drinking began to wear off among the American middle-class, and brunch became more strongly gendered (think Sex and the City’s weekly gal-pal summits). As early as 1933, when the Gatsby-era boozing had long since given way to the Depression, Washington Post writer Ruth Chambers called brunch a “meal for professional women,” an alternative social event for Ladies Who Lunch now working full-time jobs. Manuals like the Can-Opener Cookbook, Sandra Lee’s spiritual predecessor, reflected brunch’s newfound middle-class appeal by offering recipes that emphasized convenience.
Phase three—brunch as we know it—began in the 1980s, when an increase in disposable income and conspicuous consumption led to sumptuous hotel buffets, which positioned brunch as a leisurely social activity. But while it may have evolved over the years, Ternikar argued, certain constants remain, including its class and gender connotations. It’s not such a big leap, after all, from the episode of All in the Family, where Archie dismisses his daughter’s newfound affinity for brunch as the result of “reading too much Cosmo,” to Portlandia’s epic tour of “Brunch Village,” or the frustration Marshall Erikson of How I Met Your Mother feels when he can’t get brunch with his friend Brad without Ted and Robin telling him it’s “girly.”
So while we may appear to be in phase four of brunch—the Backlash to Brunch—the meal that Casablancas or David Shaftel of “Brunch Is for Jerks” infamy find so objectionable has been around for a while. The food itself may have evolved thanks to globalization and the power of huevos rancheros, but its role as a signifier of social status, particularly for women, has been in place for almost a century. What movements like #BlackBrunch—an offshoot of #BlackLivesMatter where protesters would set up shop at brunch destinations like Maialino—object to is not the meal itself, but its longstanding affiliation with privilege, and more recently, gentrification.
And as a sociologist, that association naturally caught Ternikar’s attention. “Brunch is a place where we can overtly display our culinary capital,” she summarized. “Or not.”