August 2014

Teri Vlassopoulos


The Brunching Class

Foodies, people who care about food but cringe at the term "foodies," and viewers of Iron Chef are familiar with Brillat-Savarin's aphorism, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." Reductive, yes, but maybe one can deduce something crucial about a person by what they ingest. Ava Chin, who wrote the New York Times's Urban Forager column, documents how she came to foraging and how it lead to different breakthroughs in her life in her memoir Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal. It's the kind of book that you could easily apply Brillat-Savarin's aphorism to. Chin's foraging is a good symbol for her curiosity, perseverance, and loyalty to her family, particularly her grandparents, who fed her many of the foods she later forages for.

"Foraging for food is a little like a mythic quest," Chin writes, and even the names of what she finds sound like ingredients for magic spells: cloud ear, wood sorrel, daylily, lambsquarters. One of the first foods she introduces us to are reishis, "mushrooms of Immortality," which can be found at the base of willows, sycamores, and pines (or Chinese pharmacies if you don't want to look). The mushrooms are boiled for at least an hour to produce a kind of bitter, but healing tea.

The book has a looking-for-love narrative thread as well and, consistent with the food memoir trope, an inevitable happy ending, but it's the actual quest for wild foods that's most fascinating. For instance, she describes how to make a spore print so that you can make sure the mushrooms you've gathered aren't poisonous (useful!).

It's also particularly interesting when Chin ponders the ethics of foraging after being called out for being in violation of one of Prospect Park's regulations, the implication being that her foraging was an anti-preservationist act. But Chin demonstrates throughout the course of her book that foragers care about practicing in a sustainable, respectful way. In many countries, foraging is a revered, age-old tradition. In Scandinavia it's protected by the principle of Allemanstratten, the right to public access, which allows citizens to gather mushrooms and vegetation. As Chin points out about the United States, "We had a rubric of openness ('This land was made for you and me'), but when it came right down to it, most of our space was privatized -- even some beaches." While the dictionary associates foraging with "to plunder, pillage and ravage," Chin's alternate definition for forager would be, "One who loves the land so much that she literally eats from it."

It's a book like Chin's that makes one feel positive about Brillat-Savarin's method of judgment. But then you read Shawn Micallef's The Trouble with Brunch: Work, Class, and the Pursuit of Leisure, the latest in Toronto-based Coach House Press's Exploded Views imprint. The slim, but rigorous book provides a critical look at foodie culture and those for whom food is a way of life, not simply fuel to live the rest of their lives.

For Micallef, his trouble with brunch began when he moved from his hometown of Windsor, the heart of Canada's dying automotive industry ("a Springsteen kind of town"), to urban Toronto. The brunch he grew up going to occurred in banquet halls or hotels on special occasions, the food served in big warming trays buffet-style. In Toronto, he realized, brunch was an entirely different affair. The banquet halls were replaced with "tiny, fashionably fey places," the food fussier. It wasn't just brunch that was different in Toronto, but he uses it as a starting point to parse class issues. Because of Windsor's reliance on the car industry, the volatility of the city's economic health was a persistent concern to its residents. In Toronto he noticed that this kind of worry was tucked away even though it had its fair share of people in similarly economically precarious situations. Why was that?

The urban obsession with brunch seemed to be an indication of people's varying perception of "middle class." In Toronto, Micallef was surrounded by writers, freelancers, and artists, which is called "the creative class." The creative (or "brunching") class is a subset of the middle class, where "middle class" is a term broadly used but rarely quantitatively defined. "Being or feeling middle class is about much more than numerical data. It's a world view, a sensibility, a sense of self, and essentially ignores income disparity," Micallef writes. The middle class had clear, discrete markers in Windsor -- you had a union job, a house, a paved driveway. In his new town, everyone acted like they were the same, but he never quite knew if his peers were truly on the same economic level. It was disconcerting. Brunch was a clear example of conspicuous consumption -- it indicated an abundance of leisure time, freedom -- even if one didn't necessarily have these things. Micallef also came to see brunch as a symbol of how easy it was to ignore big problems. In fact, Micallef wrote, "If Nero were around today, he would have brunched as Rome burned. What is it about this class of people that keeps them from seeing the fire?"

While true breakfast -- the meal one eats quickly, routinely, before starting a day's work -- may vary according to a city or a country's customs, brunch -- the lazy, late morning or early afternoon weekend meal -- has a sameness to it no matter where you are. There's something about the portmanteau that flattens out regional variations and Micallef realized that whether he was in Toronto or Buenos Aires he encountered the same things: long lines, overpriced eggs, and, among those who frequently brunched, that same blasť attitude toward class, income, and leisure time.

These are harsh judgements to make on those who simply enjoy lingering over a weekend meal, and while the leap might be forced, Micallef does provide useful critiques. As for solutions, even Micallef is surprised when he finds one in Portland where one would expect Portlandia levels of absurdity instead. The Portland Brunch Club is a group of people who bring rules and a conscious critical awareness to the meal. (Okay, maybe that does sound a little like something from Portlandia).

I think Micallef would have been happy at a brunch Ava Chin writes about in Eating Wildly. She makes it herself at her home and centers it around a "Wild greens pie" stuffed with the greens she forages in various parks around New York City. At the crux of it, Micallef's issue with brunch is a lack of self-awareness, and his book is essentially a call to arms to consider the implications of one's actions, even for something as innocuous as meeting friends for eggs and mimosas. Maybe a better way to look at Brillat-Savarin's aphorism would be, "Tell me what you think about what you eat, and I will tell you what you are."