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.
October 20, 2010
It’s one thing for a political candidate to promise a chicken in every pot, as the Republican National Committee—though never Herbert Hoover himself—did during the 1928 presidential campaign. In the salad days of American democracy, the sales pitch was a little more direct: candidates actually plied voters with food and drink.
Even the father of our country, George Washington, was known to bribe the electorate with booze. In his recent book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent writes: “When twenty-four-year-old George Washington first ran for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses, he attributed his defeat to his failure to provide enough alcohol for the voters. When he tried again two years later, Washington floated into office partly on the 144 gallons of rum, punch, hard cider and beer his election agent handed out—roughly half a gallon for every vote he received.”
The practice, which was widespread and accepted (if technically illegal) at the time, was referred to as “swilling the planters with bumbo,” according to the 1989 book Campaigning in America: A History of Election Practices, by Robert J. Dinkin. “If a candidate ignored the custom of treating, he often found himself in great difficulty,” Dinkin writes. When James Madison attempted to campaign in 1777 without “the corrupting influence of spiritous liquors, and other treats,” he lost to a less principled opponent.
The practice of wining and dining the electorate can be traced back to Britain and, even earlier, to ancient Rome and Greece. By the 19th century, political parties—living up to the term—had elevated the tactic to a grand spectacle. In October 1876, Republicans in Brooklyn held the mother of all campaign barbecues, parading two oxen through the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn before roasting them whole in Myrtle Avenue Park and passing the meat out on sandwiches. The New York Times called it “one of the most magnificent affairs of the kind ever held in this neighborhood. The grounds were thronged with men, women, and children during the whole of the afternoon and evening, and at the close of the festivities it is estimated that not less than 50,000 persons were in the park.”
Sixteen years earlier, during the 1860 presidential election, the Douglas Democrats held a “Grand Political Carnival and Ox-roast” in Jones’ Wood (in today’s Upper East Side of Manhattan) that didn’t go quite as smoothly. The event attracted 20,000 to 30,000 people, according to an amusing account in The New York Times:
The native voters and the unnaturalized votaries of the party on empty stomachs wended to the Wood, and awaited the feast for which they had reserved their appetites. But disappointment waits on expectation. Of all those who for hours stood there in hungry anticipation, comparatively few obtained a dinner. An ox, a sheep, a calf, and a hog, were the sacrifices by which the people were sought to be propitiated.
The 2,200-pound ox was cooked for 12 hours in a stone-lined pit 16 feet long, eight feet wide and five feet deep. It was served alongside 2,000 loaves of bread and 10 barrels of Boston crackers. But, alas, this was not enough for the hungry electorate:
It was nearly 2 o’clock, and everything was prepared for the orderly and quiet feeding of the people, when,—cito concurritur—there was a sudden rush, the barriers were overthrown, the policemen and the cooks were driven back, and Popular Sovereignty in its most extended signification was practically exemplified. Around and upon the tables that groaned under the dismembered parts of the ox and his fellow-victims the crowd swarmed like so many ants. There was a wild scramble for the choice bits; a pulling and hauling at greasy bones and gravy-soaked fibre, a melee over the rind of pork, a tossing of crackers and bread and meat hither and thither, and the barbecue was ended.
I don’t know whether the barbecue influenced any voters one way or the other, but Stephen A. Douglas was trounced come election time. I’d like to think the outcome had more to do with his policies (including allowing states to decide on slavery, and support for the Dred Scott decision) and those of his opponent, Abraham Lincoln.
October 12, 2010
Today’s candy-themed Inviting Writing story comes from Krystal D’Costa, a New York City-based anthropologist who writes the fascinating blog Anthropology in Practice.
Since we suspect (and hope) this may inspire you, the deadline for this round of Inviting Writing has been extended until October 15th. So if you’d still like to participate, please read these guidelines and e-mail your story to FoodandThink at gmail.com.
The Candy Drawer
By Krystal D’Costa
When I was eight years old, my family emigrated from Trinidad to New York. Two things really excited me about the move: I would get to see snow firsthand, and I’d get to participate in Halloween. I couldn’t wait to make a snowman or have a snowball fight. And I had a vision of a mountain of candy.
Since our move happened in February, it was the snow I got to experience first. I had imagined a pristine winter wonderland. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that New York City snow turns into grayish sludge not long after it hits the ground. Still, I managed to make a few snowballs, a triangular snowman, and a tentative snow angel.
Once the snow melted, I set my sights on Halloween. I was a well-read kid, interested in history and culture from a young age, so I thought I pretty much had this Halloween thing figured out: I would get dressed up and ring a few doorbells, and then my sister and I would reap the rewards. The way I saw it, we’d be swimming in candy at the end of the night—sleeping on small piles of it, even. I promised her we’d have a ton of candy. I was sure that people were just going to line the sidewalks with big bowls of candy that they would liberally distribute.
To get ready for this joyous event, I decided to give up eating sweets until Halloween came along, so I would enjoy my spoils all the more when the time came. But I still collected the candy I came across that I liked—I was going to add it to what I got on Halloween. All summer long, I built a stash of Kit-Kats and Milky Ways and 3 Musketeers. I kept them in the bottom drawer of my dresser that absolutely no one, especially not a little sister, was allowed to open. I even made a special “Keep Out” sign for the drawer.
By September, the drawer had accumulated a number of slightly squashed chocolate bars. (The clothes had been relocated to under the bed.) And I was getting pretty excited. I had made friends on my block in Queens easily, and we planned to all go trick or treating together (with one of the moms in tow for supervision).
“What are you going to be?” one of my friends asked. “A ghost,” I said. I figured I could get one of my mom’s sheets pretty easily.
“You can’t be a ghost. That’s lame,” the friend informed me matter-of-factly.
What? What was I going to do? I couldn’t be lame—how would I get candy then? I thought quickly.
“I’ll be a witch,” I announced, then marched home and informed my mother of my choice. We went out that afternoon and found a purple costume, complete with a pointed polyester hat with a crescent moon on it and a wand. The dress was sort of itchy, but I wasn’t going to complain. Oh no, definitely not—I was one step closer to a candy surplus.
I tried on my costume daily. I practiced. I even thought of jokes in case someone demanded a trick for the treat (see, I had done my reading). And then October 31 arrived. What a glorious Saturday! I was up bright and early even though my friends and I weren’t supposed to meet until after noon. I refused breakfast, put on my costume, and sat on the front steps with my candy bag and my hat to wait.
After what felt like an eternity, my friends and the mom-on-duty arrived. Waving goodbye to my little sister, I set off, anticipating that I would return with my bag overflowing. I was the first one up the walkway of the first house we came to.
I rang the bell, and waited. And waited. No one came. Still chattering excitedly, we went to the next house, and rang the bell. And waited. No one came there either. I was still first up the walk at the third house, but no one answered there either.
What was going on? Where were the throngs of people handing out candy? We were all a little perplexed. At the fourth house, we each got a single Tootsie roll. And at the fifth house, we each got a full sized Milky Way. But at the next house, we got boxes of raisins. Raisins? Those are fruit, not candy! I gave those away. And so it continued. We visited every house on the block, and about half the people—the ones with kids and grandkids—opened the door, but the problem was that my bag was only about a quarter of the way full. I was definitely disappointed, as were the others. We went from chattering excitedly to trying to barter with each other for coveted items.
I got home that night and emptied out the candy drawer, combining the contents with the candy from my bag. It wasn’t quite enough to sleep on—but it was enough to share with a little sister.
All in all, it was a good lesson to learn at an early age: saving a little for a rainy day is never a bad idea.