If you give any thought to brunch, you might consider it just another meal around which to while away your weekend.
But, according to Shawn Micallef, Toronto Star columnist, academic and man about town, in joining the herd for this trendy meal you are committing a political act that marks you as insensitive to the social threats and inequalities around us. Instead of being a happy-go-lucky consumer of mimosas and eggs benny, pleased to be imbibing in public before noon, blowing your day’s calorie budget on one meal and hanging out with friends, you are a silly show-off wasting precious creative hours standing in line waiting for a small table in a trendy restaurant, eating food that is gross, unhealthy, uninspired and overpriced. You are a dull sheep following a trend, a bourgeois schmo.
To be clear, Micallef does not denounce the celebratory all-you-can-eat hotel brunch (now sadly lost to those of us who no longer can eat all we can eat). He is also good with the diner down the street where food is simple and cheap. Or with brunch at your house.
The author is specific about his target: a well-reviewed, much-hyped and popular place that is usually decorated in “authentic” mode—say an old factory, a former sweatshop or erstwhile garage with doors open to a patio. It will have implements of labour hanging on roughened walls. You are taking “a modern leisurely meal … amidst reminders of labour as it once was.” The flowers in mason jars (the millennial equivalent of the candle in the Chianti bottle of the 1960s) are there to lend a proletarian air to the atmosphere.
The members of the “brunching class” that Micallef disdains do not see the irony in their setting. And though this “cesspool of stress” seems anything but relaxed, brunchers are committing “an overt act of leisure,” of extreme middle–classness. In his view, the political act of joining the herd for such a meal is socially irresponsible: “The same desire for the perfect brunch is connected to other practices that hinge on troublesome class assumptions and feel-good illusions that should be part of any examination of how the middle class live today.”
Your innocent brunch is evidence of the practice of “conspicuous consumption,” the sociological concept introduced in 1899 by American economist Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. Veblen was describing the unsavoury behaviour of the nouveaux riches after the industrial revolution, who flaunted their purchases to garner prestige and power.
You know those pictures of your meal that you tweeted so everyone could see what a great life you have? Well, schmo, you are consuming conspicuously. You are what you tweet. And what are you? “At on-trend brunch restaurants, heretofore -liberal-minded, compassionate and socially aware people become monstrous amalgams of Ayn Rand and Margaret Thatcher.”
Micallef first noticed the cultural shift in what he had known as middle-classness in 2000, when he moved to Toronto from his boyhood home in Windsor, Ontario—when, as he puts it, he moved from blue-collar working class into the t-shirt middle class where writers, media people and knowledge people live. The book is a personal journey in which “I want to understand class because it’s been there all my life, and most of the time, I didn’t notice. It’s only because I’ve moved between the classes that I see it now, the elephant in so many rooms.” At brunch in many western cities he has visited, Micallef finds the symbol of the very profound change in the way we work and how we earn, and, most importantly, the class and class consciousness it is giving rise to.
The five-day work week in a unionized shop with lifelong benefits is ending. A world-wide Gallup poll shows that people with one full-time job are in the minority; almost all new employment in 2013 was part-time. Now, people cobble together bits and pieces to make a job, to make a living. But this affects leisure. With mobile phones, all time is work time. The corner Starbucks is now a workplace. Google headquarters are kitted up like playgrounds. Work is disguised as play. It is all mixed up.
The new creative/knowledge class is not always moneyed: although educated and prestigious, many of its members are often broke. This is different from the 19th-century nouveaux riches. We now have a prestigious class with a brand-new form of poverty: Bob Cratchit, meet just about any 35-year-old you know.
Returning to his title, Micallef says that the trouble with brunch is that “it could be so much more, and a closer look at brunch itself reveals its potential. The brunching class, if it embraced a little Veblen and [Richard] Florida, and took a critical look at how it spends its time, and how others around it do, a collective identity across heretofore loosely related kinds of knowledge workers could be formed.”
Let’s not kid ourselves, Micallef concludes. “The middle class continues to be in denial of what it is while disregarding the things that are in its best interest to pay attention to … I fear the crisis will have to get much worse before we are shocked into collective action. I don’t have any easy answer as to how to do any of this, but class struggles are always hard work.”
So, in reply, let me give a defence of shared meals however they are taken. Humans remain the only mammals who face one another when they feed. A meal taken together over a common surface is a vital social institution, especially in urban centres where people tend to gather in public places instead of in their cramped apartments.
Few behaviours are more revealing of social class than when you eat, what you eat and with whom you eat it. It may seem pretty small-minded to make grand judgements on where, what and with whom any given group eats, but it is an old game and not a few of us have made a living at it. In England evening tea at 6 p.m. is working class, while afternoon tea at 4 p.m. is posh. Taking tea in the afternoon shows you have the leisure and resources to have a relaxed meal later, when the exhausted working-class stiffs are in bed.
The Trouble with Brunch is a well-considered and provocative read that, at the least, gets you thinking about how the working world has changed and the effects on our class structure, some of which are very welcome. But Micallef’s metaphor of brunch is a stretch; one sorry meal is asked to carry a lot of sociological freight. A few broke people standing in line talking on their cellphones do not a revolution make. Why make this the practice that reveals the danger of the emerging new class consciousness?
Micalleff is a valuable observer, and his book raises questions I would like to discuss with him. But I will not be asking him out to brunch.
Cynthia Wine is a former staff restaurant critic at The Toronto Star and the author of Eating for a Living: Notes from a Professional Diner (Penguin, 1993).