May 6, 2011
Once a week, an email chain of epic proportions germinates in my inbox: it’s a regular call to brunch, followed by a scramble to figure out where we’re eating, how many people are in so that reservations can be made, what time we’re eating and whether or not bottomless mimosas are available. No mimosas usually means a change in venue, depending on who’s in. And come Sunday morning there’s a round of phone calls and text messages to rally the oversleeping, hung-over and/or otherwise indisposed members of the group. It’s a complicated affair.
In anticipation of this Sunday, families all across the country will be be going head-t0-head, trying to beat each other out in securing brunch reservations at their favorite dining spots in order to celebrate Mother’s Day. When did people start subjecting themselves to this delicious little slice of Sunday madness?
As is the case with many culinary traditions, the origins are a bit hazy. Some food historians think that the meal has its roots in England’s hunt breakfasts—lavish multi-course meals that featured a smorgasbord of goodies such as chicken livers, eggs, meats, bacon, fresh fruit and sweets. Others posit that Sunday brunch derives from the practice of Catholics fasting before mass and then sitting down for a large midday meal. And then there are those who look to New York’s abundance of dining spots when it comes to tracing the origins of classic brunch dishes from eggs Benedict to bagels and lox.
What does seem certain is that the word “brunch”—that playful blend of “breakfast” and “lunch”—first appeared in print in an 1895 Hunter’s Weekly article. In “Brunch: A Plea,” British author Guy Beringer suggested an alternative to the heavy, post-church Sunday meals in favor of lighter fare served late in the morning. ”Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting,” Beringer says. ”It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”
But wherever the initial spark of genius came from, the tradition definitely seems to have caught on in the United States in the 1930s, supposedly because Hollywood stars making transcontinental train trips frequently stopped off in Chicago to enjoy a late morning meal. It was a meal championed by hotels since most restaurants were closed on Sundays and, with church attendance flagging after World War II, people were looking for a new social outlet that also let them sleep in a bit. Restaurants soon hopped on the bandwagon and began offering the decadent spreads of food and signature morning cocktails, such as Bloody Marys, Bellinis and Mimosas.
“Sunday dinner became important because it was the only time people could eat together as a family unit during the week at the onset of urbanization and industrialization, 150 years ago,” according to Stanford University professor Carl Degler in a 1980 Chicago Tribune article on the rise of America’s brunch culture. He also pointed to another social change that might be responsible for why Sunday brunch became so popular here. “After World War II, large numbers of American married women entered the workforce for the first time. [...] Married women needed a relief on Sunday, too, thus the rise in popularity of Sunday brunch eaten out.”
Chefs, however, aren’t a huge fan. After a busy Saturday night, trying to create a menu for a meal that stretches from 11 A.M. until 3 or 4 in the afternoon—finding that right balance between breakfast foods, lunch foods and exotic hybrids of the two—is no small task. And then there’s the issue of dealing with fussy diners.
Will you be celebrating mom by way of a big brunch buffet this Sunday or do you have other Mother’s Day dining traditions you like to keep? Tell us in the comments area below.
May 28, 2010
Cory Bernat is the creator of an intriguing online exhibit of American food posters related to World Wars I and II, culled from the National Agricultural Library’s collection. Blogger Amanda Bensen recently spoke with her about the project.
What kind of messages about food was the government sending to the American public through these posters?
Bernat: Actually, as a professor pointed out to me, most of them are not really about food—they’re about behavior modification. Both times, with both wars, the government needed the public to modify their behavior for the national good. (And today, that’s exactly what Michelle Obama is trying to get people to do: change their behavior to curb childhood obesity.) As the Food Administration’s publications director put it to state officials back in 1917: “All you gentlemen have to do is induce the American people to change their ways of living!” He’s saying it with irony, of course, because that’s a very hard task.
Talk about what some of the specific posters mean. Any favorites?
I have a preference in general for the World War I posters because they’re just more informative. Look at the one called “Bread: The Nation’s Loaf and How We Used It in 1916.” This is a really impressive infographic, and it’s only a state poster, from Kansas. Not only is the text informative—it tells you how many bushels of wheat per person are consumed in the U.S.—but they’ve used true imagery. And on top of that, there are the strong messages: “Economy of food is patriotism,” and “Without it democracy is doomed; personal sacrifice must supplant previous extravagance.” What incredible statements! I like to wonder what people would make of this today.
I also like the one after it in the online gallery. The saluting potato alone would be enough, but the information is good, too. And that “Be Loyal to Connecticut” line is basically telling people to eat locally—this was almost 100 years ago!
Then there’s one from Arizona called “Good Eats” that urges people to preserve and eat more “perishables” [i.e. fruits and vegetables] than “staples” [wheat and sugar], and it says this will bring both savings and “fewer doctor bills.” That’s a really prescient poster, and it strikes me as a good message for a contemporary audience. We’re rarely encouraged anymore to make the connections between diet and health and expense.
I notice there are also some posters from the years between the two World Wars. What issues did those address?
Well, take the one that says “America Has Plenty of Food,” from the 1930s. That’s at a time when the FDR administration was trying to achieve some parity between the price of food and the price that farmers were paid for that food. Increased production during World War I had put farmers into debt, buying land and equipment—and then there was a depression after the war, and farmers were in this terrible position of not being able to sell what they were growing.
So FDR began paying farmers to not grow things, and this poster was a way to reassure everyone that his policies were working—yes, we are paying farmers to not grow, but don’t worry, there’s still enough food for everyone. See that flag in the background? It’s from the “Ever-Normal Granary.” That’s a nice touch.
There are a lot of posters with the theme of reducing food waste, eating scraps and even saving “used fats” for the war effort. It’s kind of amazing how quickly things have changed.
Yes, one of the interesting questions this could lead to is, why is there no similar communal effort or awareness today, when we are technically at war? Even soldiers, I’ve heard, find that a little disheartening. I would almost call these messages subversive now.
Putting these posters in chronological order showed me how the government’s methodology changed over the years, and how they borrowed from professional advertising and were influenced by what was going on in the private sector. It also really shows the shift to an industrialized food system. You look at the WWII posters and think—where are the agriculture ones? Well, there aren’t any. It’s suddenly about consumers, not farmers.
Was anything consistent?
One thing that remained consistent was the use of women. Women are all over the food ads, still, today. And canning was very consistently popular as a topic because it was comforting. It was a way to show abundance instead of sacrifice, and these very typical, homey kitchen scenes with a woman in an apron. That’s not Rosie the Riveter.
How did you become interested in these posters? Did you know the Ag Library had such a collection?
Basically, it was a lucky find. I started this project in 2007 as a paper in a museum studies class, and it evolved into my thesis for a master’s degree. A history professor who heard I was interested in food history suggested that I check out the agricultural library up the road [in Beltsville, MD]. When I went to look, what I found was a pile of unprocessed posters. The library didn’t even know what they had. But that was good for me, because it forced me to really study them. It allowed me to combine my research interests with my background in graphic design. And it helped that I had the structure of grad school to force me to propose some sort of project.
I took little snapshots of all the posters I thought I might want to study, and I had them all spread out on my floor, trying to figure out where they all belong in relation to each other. My professor wanted to know: What are you going to say about them? And I didn’t know at first, which was kind of unusual. Most historians begin with text and find visual material to illustrate it—I was doing the flip.
I tried to view this as real curatorial work, looking at them in historical context and telling the story in a way that means something to today’s audience, but also explains how they would have been viewed at the time.
I’ve been working on it, donating my time for about 2 years, and it has gone through several iterations.I ended up covering an unusually large time period for just a master’s thesis, but I’m glad I did! I’m pleased with the result. I’m still learning things.
Were your professors pleased, too, I hope?
(Laughs). Yes, I got an A, and I graduated in December  with a master’s in cultural history and museum studies. Now, in my day job I’m a project archivist at the National Park Service, but I’d like to work in exhibit design.
Well, you’ve done a great job with this online exhibit. Will it ever become a physical exhibit, too?
It goes on display from June 21st through September August 30th at the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville (MD), and will eventually move to the USDA building in downtown DC. The originals can’t be shown, because they are too light-sensitive. But I was actually glad when I heard that, because I don’t think these posters should be shown in a conventional, framed way. I want to show them as the mass-produced objects that they were, so I’ll be pasting them on fence panels.
July 15, 2009
The United States is not usually credited with having a rich national cuisine. As the collection of WPA-commissioned articles in Mark Kurlansky’s book The Food of a Younger Land shows, however, the country does have quite an array of regional specialties and peculiarities, due in part to its size and diversity of both terrain and population.
The food traditions of the western part of the United States, as elsewhere in the country, often reflect the immigrant communities that settled there. In Wisconsin and Minnesota, Scandinavians brought lutefisk, a dish of dried codfish cured in lye. It’s cold-weather fare by necessity—the preparation requires the fish be left out for days—served up at holiday meals and church-sponsored suppers. According to Kurlansky, the tradition faded in the decades following World War II, but saw a resurgence in the late 20th century. Despite a funny anecdote about Wisconsin Norwegians forming a protective association to guard the suppers from Germans and Irish “invading the sacred lutefisk domains,” the writer of the essay confesses, “Nobody likes lutefisk at first. You have to learn to like it.”
The Midwest was also pioneer territory, and several of the articles in that section of the book refer to the foods that helped sustain the hardscrabble lives of the settlers: Nebraska buffalo barbecue (which is actually bison, Kurlansky explains, misidentified as its distant relative by the explorer Hernando de Soto in 1544); Montana fried beaver tail; and Illinois vinegar pie, developed to fulfill the craving for tartness when no fruit was available.
A piece written by novelist Nelson Algren, who went on to win the first National Book Award, in 1950, includes this amusing tale: “One legend has it that, on an occasion when an unusually long train of Conestoga wagons was crossing the plains of Kansas, it was found necessary to separate into two trains. With but one frying pan, and a single pot in the whole caravan, the division was accomplished by counting off those who preferred ash-cake to boiled dumplings. Those who preferred ash-cakes took the skillet; the ones who went for dumplings followed the pot.”
The section on the Southwest, while skimpier than the other regions’ chapters, includes one peculiar California tradition: the grunion run. The grunion is a type of sardine-size fish that comes ashore at night during spring and summer to spawn, creating a wriggling, silvery spectacle. When the grunion are running (figuring out when, and where, the event will occur is an inexact science), the fishing frenzy begins—in this case, “fishing” means grabbing the little suckers with your bare hands. At the time the article was written (pre-WWII) the fish were usually deep fried whole. Despite living in Southern California most of my life, I somehow never made it to one of these events, so I can’t confirm what today’s preferred grunion preparation is (or if it’s even advisable to eat anything that comes from certain L.A. beaches). But, based on the popularity of sushi there, I wouldn’t be surprised if the recipe included wasabi.
July 7, 2009
There was a time in America when you might head to the local luncheonette for a bowl of soup and a root beer float, and the counterperson would shout your order to the cook, asking for a “bellywash and a black cow.” Or, if you lived in Georgia, you and your friends might get together for a Coca-Cola party, where glasses of the soft drink were the main event—an idea that now sounds as quaint and ridiculous as having a napkin party, or an ice cube party.
So many regional food traditions have faded or disappeared in the decades since the advent of chain restaurants, frozen foods and other homogenizing “advances” in the way we feed ourselves.
The Works Progress Administration was established during the Great Depression to put Americans back to work. Even unemployed writers got in on the (new) deal, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Federal Writers’ Project. Promising young scribes, including Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurston (who already had a successful writing career but was broke nonetheless), and many others of less notable talent, were tasked with documenting the eating habits of Americans. The America Eats project was abandoned after World War II broke out, and the unpublished manuscript was filed with the Library of Congress.
The Food of a Younger Land is one of two recent books to resurrect the nearly forgotten material. The other, Pat Willard’s 2008 America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA—the Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts That Define Real American Food, is described as a travelogue of a road trip she took to discover whether the traditions outlined in the project have persisted.
Kurlansky’s book simply culls some of the most interesting contributions to the project, arranged by region, and includes brief introductions that provide some background or explanation. It’s chock-full of amusing tidbits. For now, I’ll share a few of my favorites from the Northeast section.
- Walter Hackett wrote about Rhode Island May Breakfasts, an enormous feast served on May 1. “The credit for the local May Breakfasts goes to one woman who believed that in the spring people turn their thoughts to food,” he wrote. The tradition started in 1867, and was borrowed from the English, who got the idea from the ancient Romans. Among the dishes served were cold boiled ham, cold chicken, mashed turnips, creamed potatoes, pickles, pies (“all known varieties”), doughnuts, fruit and coffee. And if that wasn’t enough, there were also clam cakes, “for the hardy gourmet.”
- An article about dishes that originated in New York City hotels included Waldorf Salad, Lobster Newburg, and, to my surprise, Vichyssoise. The chilled potato soup was not invented in France, as I assumed, but at the Ritz-Carlton in Manhattan.
- The Automat—a “mechanical lunchroom” where you got single servings of food from coin-operated cubicles—was all the rage in New York City. The writer of this essay, Edward O’Brien, asserted that “the Automat will flourish so long as the average New Yorker remains what he is, a person who is everlastingly fond of dropping coins into slot machines, who loves good coffee, and who knows his cinnamon buns.” The last Automat closed in 1991, although an updated version opened in the East Village in 2006.
- In the introduction to a piece on Rhode Island Clam Chowder, Kurlansky explains that what we call Manhattan Clam Chowder, with a tomato rather than cream base, is actually derived from Portuguese and Italian cooks in Rhode Island. He writes, “Massachusetts people expressed their scorn for the Rhode Island tomato and clam soup by calling it ‘Manhattan clam chowder,’ even though it had nothing to do with Manhattan.”
November 21, 2008
Pigeons and pork bellies, apparently. And don’t forget the sweetbreads…
I was lucky enough to snag a seat (and a fork) at a recent dinner lecture organized by the Smithsonian Resident Associates at 701 Restaurant, here in DC. The topic, “What is American Food?” conjured images of meatloaf and apple pie in my mind, but it turns out I have a lot to learn.
“Chilled lobster composition salad with wasabi apple crème, orange and tomato gelees,” and “Pan roasted squab breast with crispy sweetbreads and grilled vegetable pave,” were among the menu items. Not exactly things mom used to make!
701’s chef, Bobby Varua, had created a special five-course tasting menu to show us his personal take on American food. As we nibbled our pork-belly-with-soy-tapioca-pearls “amuse bouche,” the guest speaker, food historian Andrew Smith, told us that American food is any and all of the following things:
1) Native American food. For obvious reasons.
2) British food. Ditto.
3) “Ethnic food,” i.e. Chinese, Mexican, German and Italian – because immigration trends affect our cookbooks as much as our history books.
4) Industrialized/processed foods. (Easy Cheese. Enough said.)
5) Genetically modified foods. According to Smith, about 80 percent of American food contains GM ingredients, primarily corn and soy.
Throughout the night, Smith pointed out several ingredients on our plates that American Indians would have eaten, like squab, rabbit, and lobster (though he noted that lobster was considered a “trash food” only eaten as a last resort by many tribes). Flavors like wasabi expanded the menu to other continents, and at least one GM ingredient (soy) made an appearance. Hints of Britain were evident in dessert – custard – and perhaps in the ravioli, which I was surprised to learn may have been invented in England rather than Italy. (Well, that’s what Smith says – after googling a bit, I think the jury may still be out on that.)
Things I personally learned:
1) Squab is a fancy word for pigeon. Eeek.
2) Sweetbreads are neither sweet nor bread, but rather a type of animal gland. Double eeek.
3) Clearly, I’m still a recovering vegetarian.
4) Robert Mondavi once bought a vineyard that had a patch of Muscat grapes in it, and then – well, I don’t know, because the wine rep’s story was cut off by Smith’s booming voice. The rep didn’t seem to like that very much.
5) Any day that ends with crème brulee is a good day.