On brunch

reflections on attention and consumption

I learned recently, from friends of mine, that it used to be fashionable for a certain sort of New York Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian to attend an early low mass on Sunday, thereby ending their communion fast, then enjoy a brunch – one imagines these were boozy – before returning to church for a high mass (one with all the smells and bells and chanting), at which the priest would take communion without distributing it, inefficiently, to the congregation. There’s a lot going on in this story, and some of it involves sociological and anthropological details that need not concern us here. (Full disclosure: I happen to attend an Anglo-Catholic church in New York, but I remain somewhat uneasy about adopting that particular term for myself.)

What I’m particularly interested in is the idea of brunch as a sort of ritual. Obviously, brunch is not a liturgical ritual, but the possibility of its presence between low mass and high mass in the habits of a certain sort of devout person intrigues me. We could amuse ourselves by picturing a well-dressed Anglo-Catholic listening to ancient chants as his second martini settles properly in his stomach, the cloud of incense around him matching his foggy awareness. But we could, alternately, think of a person, fortified by fellowship and food, being able really to devote herself to worship.

The real affinity between brunch and church (or shul or mosque) is that each requires leisure, at least for who are not ministering at the church or waiting tables at the brunch. Brunch belongs to the weekend. The weekday brunch is perfectly proper, but signals a departure from the usual constraints of working life. Breakfast can inaugurate a day of work or a day of leisure. Brunch cannot – or at least, should not. 

There is precious little in our lives untouched by the miasma of the work-imperative and the status games that accompany it. I’m not saying that either brunch or church manage to be – far from it – but perhaps they have a better chance. 

You might already be thinking that I’m crazy at this point. Isn’t brunch just a trendy meal that offers the possibility of seeing and being seen? Don’t we go to brunch to feel good about ourselves? Well, I’m talking about brunch as it ought to be, a brunch that isn’t a parody of a meal.

pictured: The Benedict Option ["Eggs Benedict with Bacon - The Maling Room AUD13" by avlxyzis licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0]

In fact, both brunch and worship work only insofar as we cultivate practices of attention that leave us vulnerable to the reality of the world. In the case of brunch, the relevant sort of attention spreads out in a number of directions – to the food, to the drink, to the atmosphere, and of course, most centrally, to the people gathered with us. I’ve been to a birthday brunch or two, but, in essence, they’re just a birthday party early in the day. A real brunch is decentralized in the attention it recommends to us. The host, if there is one, does well to stay out of the limelight.

In the case of worship, our focus is more singular, but must be gathered from the whole set of sensory and intellectual experiences that the liturgy involves. Music offers perhaps the most vivid example. Whether we are listening to a choir or singing or chanting ourselves, music helps us do the work of unselfing that worship requires. (I wrote about the latter a little, so I won’t repeat myself here.)

We can contrast these practices of attention with what I would call the consumptive mindset. Attention leaves us vulnerable to the world. An attitude of consumption readies us to impose ourselves on it.

That point may seem rather puzzling when applied to the case of brunch. Isn’t the point to consume? Well, if that were true, we’d be better off consuming alone and dispensing with the social bit, just like those Anglo-Catholic priests at high mass. At brunch, the food and drink are the occasion for an encounter with one another. That is the real business of the event.

pictured: The Florentine Option ["Eggs Florentine" by whatleydude is licensed under CC BY 2.0]

I’m reminded, especially, of a recent brunch we shared with some of our closest friends, to which we issued a rather broad invitation, before our first expedition to Coney Island during the pandemic. In the end, there were five of us at a restaurant. We weren’t quite sure who would come. But once we sat down, the world outside shrank.

For whatever reason, the conversation turned to mathematics. Something people don’t generally know about me is that I spent most of my early life dreaming of becoming a mathematician, a dream I abandoned early on in college. A friend confessed to never quite having gotten the point of math, and in hearing this, somehow, viscerally, I was returned to the experience of reading a book in childhood that had first prompted my love of it. It seemed like the most ridiculous time to describe the book and some of its whimsical chapters (Ian Stewart’s Game, Set, and Math) – with our food and wine and coffee in front of us – but I did, and our friends indulged me. Both confessions – my friend’s of indifference and mine of enthusiasm – were charged with the possibility of rejection. Instead, we saw one another better.

The consumptive mindset is, to be sure, hard to escape. Relative to worship, we might think of church-shoppers, people who move from parish to parish trying to find the perfect fit, leaving half-started relationships behind them. I worry about my own excitement when the music at a particular service happens to be something I particularly like.

When it comes to brunch, and our social lives more broadly, the consumptive mindset manifests itself in curation: choosing a restaurant to feel good that we know about the best place, ordering a dish to post a picture on Instagram, making sure only the right sorts of people attend – photogenic, high-status, ‘like us’. Curation is a special problem of the social media age, but it’s just one part of the consumptive mindset, which even a technophobe can fall into.

The cure, as so often, is the work other people do on us by their very presence. The best brunches involve unexpected conversation, the revelation of a personal problem, the report of a special moment of joy, the half-digested memory that comes to light.

Perhaps this is too bold, but I wonder whether some of the special problems, the mysteries, of the Real Presence might not be illuminated by this comparison.

— Dhananjay