For those nonbelievers who knock this particular repast, calling it such names as “a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights” as Anthony Bourdain brashly states, or merely an afterthought of breakfast and the first cousin of lunch, I would like to say to you all: shame on you.
Brunch is not merely the mongrel of two more established meals, but is, as William Grimes of the New York Times once described, “A linguistic and culinary hybrid…a breakfast that begins with a cocktail. Or a lunch that’s organized around a stack of buckwheat pancakes. It’s neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring, although all three can wind up on the same plate.” Whether nibbling on pâte at the Plaza or scarfing down eggs and bagels in your kitchen, brunch is certain to start the day with a gastronomic bang (especially, as Grimes pointed out, if there are libations involved).
The origins of this foodie invention go back as far as 1885, when journalist Guy Beringer extolled the virtues of the meal in “Brunch: A Plea,” published in Hunter’s Weekly. He chirpily states:
By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday-night carousers. It would promote human happiness in other ways as well. Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting. 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.
Growing up in a suburb in New Jersey, while we were starved of cultural diversity, we were gorged with such Jewish delicacies as smoked fish and bagels. In my childhood, a weekly Sunday ritual was the coveted visit to Tabachnick’s Deli (until this bastion of gastronomic excellence was irreverently replaced by a Staples). Walking through those palatial glass doors, we were immediately confronted with the familiar smell of smoked herring and pickle juice, and the familiar wizened visages of the old men who had been working there for half a century. At first the stringy, but strangely muscular arms of these salmon smoking veterans and their loud, sometimes uncouth banter frightened me, but they soon won me over at age six by promising me a barrel of kosher pickles on my wedding day. After gathering our mid-morning feast: a potato and a kasha knish, smoked salmon, a complimentary pickle, and a Dr. Brown’s cream soda for my sweet tooth, we would say our goodbyes to the men and old Tabachnick himself and head next door to the bakery Sunny Amsters, which we lovingly nicknamed Sunny Hamsters for bagels, and triumphantly returned home to feast on our spoils. Many a Sunday morning my mouth still waters for these Judaic delicacies, and my heart mourns for this lost paradise and its charismatic inhabitants.
However, I have now found a new, and admittedly unaffordable brunch obsession, and it all started this restaurant week Boston at a place called Henrietta’s Table, where my boyfriend and I got a fleeting glimpse of how the one percent brunches. At $45 a person, it took a solid five minutes of heart palpitations and more than several deep breaths to take the plunge in my meager student budget, but after a glimpse at the sumptuous, decadent all-you-can-eat feast in front of me, I was sold.
After vowing to eat as many fancy things as our stomachs could take, we dug in. Colorful rows of pâtes and terrines, gravlax and oysters on the half shell, eggs benedict with the most heavenly hollandaise, an omelet station, selection of salads and cheeses— for one beautiful afternoon I gorged myself on the most exquisite fare, in brunchial ecstasy. After two dozen raw oysters, three helpings of baby spinach salad with duck filet and goat cheese, an eggs benedict and enough pâte to stop a heart, I still managed to sample the trifle, crème brûlée, and profiteroles from a table groaning under the weight of over a dozen such confections. It was magical.
In the case of my childhood Tabachnick’s brunches, I can’t go home again. Although the jewish bagel brunch will always be my standard comfort food, Henrietta’s Table offered me a glitzy induction into a new mode of brunching, and, unfortunately for my savings, I’m hooked. Forget my English major— I’m now considering a life of crime to finance these swanky late-morning jaunts.
Sitting on Henrietta’s plush red leather sipping my old fashioned and nibbling on a fish terrine, I suddenly remembered my young bagel-munching self and wondered: is this my initiation into the brunch of adulthood? Nevertheless, I still want a barrel of pickles at my wedding.