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Misanthrope in the Morning

Holiday Entertaining

A brunch-hater finally finds someone to blame for the oh-so-L.A. institution

November 07, 2004|RUSS PARSONS | Russ Parsons is a columnist with The Times' Food section.

As far as I'm concerned, Miss Alice Warmbath has a lot to answer for. It was on the occasion of her marriage to Juan Bautista Martino that the first recorded brunch in Los Angeles history was given on Friday, Feb. 18, 1927. That makes her the spiritual parent to oceans of cheap champagne and pasty hollandaise, overcooked eggs floating on rafts of soggy bacon and, when it's all totaled up, centuries--no, millenniums--of forced conviviality.

That's a heavy burden for one bride to bear, but history is a stern judge. And I am an implacable prosecutor. I loathe brunches with a passion that is deep and abiding.

The reasons for my enmity are not culinary but social. Breakfast is actually one of my favorite meals. Every weekday morning I fix my wife and myself a pot of oatmeal, stirring in toasted slivered almonds and dried cherries (add the cherries at the last minute so they keep a little of their chewiness; texture is important in the morning). On those mornings when I don't feel like cooking, we head to our neighborhood coffee shop, Jongewaard's Bake 'n' Broil. They make very good huevos rancheros (inauthentic--as one might expect from a family named Jongewaard--but delicious nonetheless). Or maybe we'll have their fresh strawberry or peach pancakes, when those fruits are in season. Once or twice a year I'll plunge into decadence with their cinnamon roll French toast (a sweet, buttery cinnamon roll split through its equator, soaked in egg batter, fried and topped with more butter and syrup).

But I digress. That is breakfast, not brunch. At breakfast we are allowed to eat alone in silence, and that is the difference. As far as I'm concerned, decent, right-thinking people do not socialize in the morning. They barely communicate. We should not be required to speak to anyone except to give them our order. They should bring the food, shut up and go away, leaving us to read the paper and ever so slowly regain consciousness. Conversation should be limited to "More coffee?" and a nod will do in response.

Brunches are not so civilized. The very word implies a sort of self-conscious frivolity that curdles my appetite like orange juice in skim milk. It is a modern construction; the first recorded use reported by the Oxford English Dictionary was in 1895 in an essay titled "Brunch, a Plea," by one Guy Beringer in a British society magazine called Hunter's Weekly. I picture Beringer as a fop out of a Monty Python skit. "Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting," he is said to have written. "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 the cobwebs of the week." I imagine him exclaiming, "It's like a cross between breakfast and lunch! Oh, it's a cracking good idea!" Hunter's Weekly went out of business shortly after publishing the essay (talk about just desserts), and despite the efforts of scurrying librarians all over the country, I have not been able to find the full text of Beringer's essay. Perhaps it was written tongue-in-cheek, but somehow I don't think so.

As near as I can determine, the word first turned up in North America shortly after the turn of the century. The New York Times mentioned it in 1913 in an article titled "New Arrivals in Portmanteau Land, the Home of Freakish Words," lumping it in with other recently made-up terms such as "crilk" (a cross between "milk" and "cream") and "bungaloafer" (one who loafs in a bungalow). The article was a little hazy on the word's origins, describing it as being "claimed by both Oxford and Cambridge," and defined it, predictably, as "a meal which is too late to call breakfast and too early to call lunch."

Apparently, it took more than half a century of repetition before this bit of obviousness could be disposed of, which, when you think about it, reveals quite a bit about the people who enjoy brunches. The word's definition is also spelled out explicitly (and enthusiastically) in the Los Angeles Times' extensive coverage of the Warmbath-Martino nuptials. Under the headline "Society in Sunny Southland and What it is Doing and Planning for Diversion," the paper's society columnist, Juana Neal Levy, reported: "Miss Mildred Young is planning a breakfast and luncheon combination in honor of Miss Warmbath at the Los Angeles Country Club.... These novel affairs, which are quite the rage of Palm Beach and many eastern cities, are called 'brunches' and have been introduced at fashionable resorts. Miss Young is planning to carry out a yellow and green color motif."

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