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.”
That definition was repeated, with slight variation, the next month in a society notice for a party given by Mrs. Clifford Gillespie (though some addled copy editor scrambled the word in the headline, “Recent Hostess at Local Branch”): “Among the interesting affairs of this spring are the combined breakfast and luncheons which are called ‘Brunch,’ and which seem to have attained a great popularity in the East and South, as well as in Los Angeles.”
In August, there was another brunch sighting, once again painstakingly defined. Under the headline “Society of Cinemaland,” Myra Nye wrote: "[Silent film star] Marie Prevost, whose Beverly Hills home has been the scene of many novel social functions in the past, is responsible for the film capital’s most modish form of entertaining. ‘Brunch’ was served by her to a small group of friends at her new cottage at Malibu Beach Wednesday. ‘Brunch,’ explains the piquant Marie, is a combination of breakfast and lunch, which she served at midday and which took the place of two meals in one.”
“Huzzah!” as the piquant Marie might have said.
And what was served at these festive gatherings? We have little concrete information, as menus were rarely included in these reports. (I suspect one was discouraged from paying too much attention to what one actually ate at those events; in view of what we do know, perhaps this was a good thing.) In 1928, a proposed brunch menu in a syndicated column called “Household Needs and Timely Suggestions by Sallie” proposed a Sunday brunch of figs and cream, followed by hot oatmeal, popovers, “crisp bacon” (not soggy!) and coffee. Sensible enough, but why couldn’t it be eaten in silence?
In 1931, the Los Angeles Times’ ubiquitous Marian Manners got on the brunch bandwagon with a menu of tomato juice, popovers, planked corned-beef hash with eggs, and coffee. Oh, and potatoes. “There has been considerable discussion about the etiquette of serving potatoes at affairs of this nature, but it is generally conceded that it is perfectly proper to do so,” she wrote. (Manners, grandly titled Director of The Times Home Service Bureau, was the nom de whisk of a parade of home economists who wrote about cooking for The Times well into the 1960s.)
Gradually, it seems, more savory dishes were introduced and the effects became more and more baroque. In a 1933 menu, Miss Manners proposed the bizarre combination of puffed wheat cereal, fried rainbow trout and orange juice. The next year, Manners and the brunch were off to the races with a menu that deserves to be considered at some length: “A melon full of fruit cocktail, a ham ring, filled with peas and cheese salad, eggs with vinaigrette sauce, popovers and fried chicken.”
We all know where the brunch went from there, but what of the former Miss Warmbath? Despite her connection with the dreaded institution, she apparently prospered. Her name pops up in society reports through the 1950s, though her husband is never again mentioned. And according to old city directories, the couple eventually bought a house in Nichols Canyon, an address that at least one fan website now attributes to former Python standout Eric Idle.