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How brunch became the most delicious—and divisive—meal in America


Almost 120 years ago, long before anyone waited in line to feast on eggs benedict and French toast, the word brunch appeared in print for the first time in the United States. "The latest 'fad' is to issue invitations for a meal called 'brunch...a repast at 11 o'clock a.m.," a column in the New Oxford, an old Pennsylvania newspaper, explained in 1896. Originally conceived for the wealthy as a drawn-out, elaborate affair, brunch, like a runny egg, soon dribbled out into the mainstream.

By 1939, The New York Times declared Sunday a two-meal day. By the 1960s, brunch's popularity gave rise to specific cookbooks, and by the 1990s, Americans started brunching on Saturdays too.

Now, brunch has become more popular than ever. The story of brunch is the story of changing patterns in how Americans eat, live and interact. But brunch hasn't swept the entire country just yet. When you dig into the data, you can see that brunch is far more popular in some regions of this country and among some demographics than others.

Who eats brunch

Data from Google Trends show that search interest in brunch has been rising steadily since 2004. In the chart below, you'll notice twin spikes in searches in the Spring of each year. Those correspond to Easter and Mother's Day, two Sunday observances that are evidently synonymous with brunch for many Americans—nothing, it seems, says "thanks, Mom" like a bottomless mimosa.

"Brunch continues to grow anywhere there is disposable income or time," said Ternikar. "Hipsters might not always have the income, but they may have the time."

But interest isn't universal. A review of Google search data, mapped below, shows how heavily talk about brunch is concentrated around the coasts—and how barren the Midwest brunch scene is. Any Midwesterner who tells you otherwise is likely an outlier, an urban transplant.

"Cultural trends tend to go from the coasts to the center," said Farha Ternikar, the author of Brunch: A History. "The Midwest is slower on food trends with the exception of Chicago."

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Interest in brunch, as judged by the number of searches on Google, is high in New York, Massachusetts, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Among the top 10 states for brunch interest, only Illinois and Pennsylvania are not on the coasts. These numbers show the relative intensity of searches for "brunch"—New York gets a higher score than say, Idaho, because a greater proportion of all Google searches in New York involve brunch than they do in Idaho.

Conversely, as the map above shows, the Dakotas, Nebraska and the Northern Rockies make up the Great American Brunch Desert, where interest is the lowest. Wyoming is the least brunch-friendly state.

Given that brunch can easily sap a sizable portion of anyone's Saturday or Sunday, it seems fair to expect the meal's popularity to coincide with youth, who haven't, for the most part, the sort of responsibilities (children, etc.) that make a drawn out midday sojourn hard to swallow. But there is actually no correlation whatsoever between median age and interest in the meal on the state level.

Considering the meal's upper-class roots, and reality that spending money on brunch, especially when it entails pricey cocktails, requires a bit of disposable income, you might also expect brunch searches to be correlated with income. You wouldn't be wrong—there is some relationship between a state's median income and brunch interest, although not a whole lot (compare the large map above to the smaller one in the middle just below it). There's a slightly stronger relationship between brunch and the percentage of a state's residents living in urban areas, which jibes with perceptions of the meal as a primarily yuppie pastime (look at the map on the lower right this time).

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Interestingly, there is actually something that correlates more closely with the popularity of brunch than either income or urban population. Of the demographic variables we explored -- including age, income, urban population, and religion -- the strongest correlation was between brunch and a state's Jewish population: states with higher percentages of Jewish residents tended to brunch more, or at least demonstrated a greater interest in the late morning meal. That's not to say that Jews like brunch the most, are driving interest in brunch, or anything like that—it's just a simple correlation, and there could be any number of other hidden factors driving both variables. But it does make some sense when you consider that many brunch staples—think bagels, lox, and blintzes—have Jewish roots.

Moreover, none of the other religious populations we tested—Catholics, mainline Protestants, evangelical Protestants and members of historically black Protestant churches—showed a significant positive correlation with brunch interest. Mainline Protestant traditions (Methodism, Presbyterianism, etc.) were actually negatively correlated with brunch interest at the state level.

Ternikar didn't manage to find any evidence that the origins of brunch are in any way connected to the Jewish Community. That being said, she did notice that some people suggest the meal might have become popular among American Jews because it offered an alternative from church on Sundays.

Why is brunch so popular?

The brunch movement, as we might call it, is likely gaining steam because of major trends in how Americans eat breakfast.

Breakfast isn't the family affair it used to be. The meal, in its traditional form, has been on the decline for more than two decades now. Eighty nine percent of adults ate breakfast in 1971. That number fell to 82 percent in 2002, and has likely only dipped further since. Increasingly, people are prioritizing convenience on weekday mornings—look no further than the ongoing battle in the fast food world for evidence. Or they're skipping it altogether. Younger generations—millennials specifically—have proved the likeliest to forego the morning meal. Well over a quarter of teens and twenty-somethings don't eat breakfast daily, according to a 2011-2012 National Center for Health Statistics survey.

The fall of breakfast has opened the door for many breakfast foods—for which there remains a healthy demand—to be eaten on the weekends when schedules aren't quite as tight, and cravings have built up over the course of the week.

Perhaps that explains why most people wait for Sundays, but many are now eating or at least thinking about brunch on Saturdays.

"Restaurant brunches are more than just destinations, they’re communal experiences," our colleague Maura Judkis wrote last year. "In busy Washington, sometimes the weekend mornings are the only time groups of friends can manage to get together."

The rise of brunch is also being perpetuated by a shift in the places where people live. Americans are increasingly packing into cities, where restaurants are more common, and brunch is therefore more likely to be offered. Many who previously had to travel far for an elaborate breakfast after noon, can now indulge at a spot around the corner.

More than a meal

Back in 1895 we find what is believed to be the very first utterance of the portmanteau. Guy Beringer, a British writer, penned a clairvoyant piece called "Brunch: A Plea" in Hunter's Weekly. He wanted people to gather for a late breakfast on Sundays not necessarily for the food but for the experience. Beringer had high hopes:

By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday-night carousers. It would promote human happiness in other ways as well. Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting. 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 cobwebs of the week.

The notion that a meal could improve tempers, boost happiness, and wash away lingering stresses might have been a bit far-fetched. But brunch has actually proved more significant, both culturally and historically, than many might realize.

Brunch, for one, is inextricably tied to drinking culture. Not only did the meal popularize the habit of daytime drinking, but it gave birth to several cocktails, like the Bloody Mary and Mimosa. In fact, it's attributed with spreading the now common practice of mixing alcohol with juices and other drinks. In the 1920s, during prohibition, diluting spirits with other beverages helped hide the fact that the alcohol hadn't been aged quite as long.

The new wave of mixed drinks, often centered around citrus, eventually helped shed stigmas about drinking during daylight, especially for women and members of the middle class. In the early to mid 1900s, brunch offered a platform for people to drink during the day in a socially acceptable fashion.

"It's important to think about not only the history of brunch as it intersects with prohibition, but how class and gender shaped some of that first wave of brunch," Ternikar explained during a recent presentation for her new book. Originally, the habit was only popular among the upper class—members of the middle class, women particularly, were warned about how drinking publicly might affect their reputation, according to Ternikar. By the 1970s, however, brunch and its more approachable concoctions had loosened the negative stigma.

Brunch also offered a form of restrained celebration that proved particularly acceptable on holidays like Easter, Christmas, and Mother's Day, and gave rise to traditions, like the bridal brunch.

Brunch, as trailblazing as it might have been and popular as it has become, hasn't come without its complaints. In recent years, those have centered not necessarily around what the meal is, but rather what it represents.

"Brunch is a visible sign of the changes that sometimes feel out of our control," Shawn Micallef, the author of The Trouble with Brunch, told the New York Times last year. He was hinting at how the gentrification of certain neighborhoods always seems to boost the local brunch scene.

The sentiment is echoed through David Shaftel's provocative, if angry, op-ed piece 'Brunch is for Jerks,' which the Times published last year. The argument, which pulls largely from anecdotal evidence, bemoans the family-spoiling, neighborhood-ruining, raucous practice that is, to Shaftel's chagrin, overtaking New York City.

"While Sundays were traditionally reserved for family, we now have crowds of unfettered young(ish) people with no limitations on their pursuit of weekend leisure, who seem bent on making New York feel like one big rerun of 'Friends' or 'Sex and the City,'" he wrote. "The friends aren't the problem, of course," he goes on to say. "Brunch is."

Although brunch has trickled down from its privileged beginnings, it remains a signifier of class. In the same way that the opening of higher end coffee chains, like Starbucks, says something about the current socioeconomic makeup of a neighborhood, so too does the local ubiquity of brunch menus.

But even though interest in brunch appears concentrated on the coasts, the weekend phenomenon is spreading. Demand for the meal has been so great that even fast-food eateries and casual sit-down restaurants have begun to offer weekend brunch deals. Ruby Tuesday's launched a nationwide brunch service in 2009. Burger King began testing it in 2010. And Salsa Fiesta, a Mexican fast-casual chain based in South Florida, has been serving brunch items on the weekends since 2012.