The small town of Tivoli, NY, where I lived for my latter two years of college, didn’t have a single shop. It did, however, have a laundromat, a pizza parlor and six restaurants of high caliber. Tivoli, and the neighboring towns of Red Hook and Rhinebeck played host to a strange mix of demographic between local townies–owners of the hardware store, the peach orchard, the video store carrying step-aerobic VHS tapes from the early ‘90s–and wealthy New York City residents seeking retreat to the Catskills and the Hudson. They shopped at boutiques and the farmers market, they did yoga, and they went to brunch. Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman bought a place in Rhinebeck and were rumored to be brunching at Calico. Brunch was hip, brunch was elite. I learned the meaning of the word “Epicurean.”
My own experiences with brunch during this time were still limited to once every month or so, when a gaggle of my hippie dorm-mates and I would gather at Milagros Bakery or Cafe Pongo, where we’d treat ourselves to Benedicts with fresh chard, oatmeal with strawberries and brown sugar. I began to fall in love with food. I learned the meaning of the word “organic.”
After graduating I moved from Tivoli to Iowa City, then St. Louis, Olympia, and finally Seattle. In Iowa I traded two paintings for a summer of rent and spent my days at the public library and the zine shop. I read about Monsanto and Bush and paradigms and oppression and genetic engineering and sexism and abuse. I read about love and painting and punk rock. I read about corn, and how corn is in everything. Food was political, food was powerful. I bought three cookbooks. For the first year in Seattle I cooked five days a week. Everything from scratch, even grinding the flour from wheat berries for bread, and making soy milk straight from the beans. I made friends with musicians and activists and my neighbors. Brunch was secret cafes at punk houses, the money going towards bike libraries or accountability panels. Brunch was sunny morning rides to the now defunct Globe Cafe–tofu scramble with kale and vegan biscuits and sometimes a home brewed root beer from Elysian down the street. Brunch was community in a new city where for the first time, I was supporting myself.
At 25 I was hired in my first “real” job, doing sales at a buzz word board game company in Seattle. It was the whole shebang–a salary and benefits and cool young co-workers for whom every social activity revolved around food. I moved to a new neighborhood, a neighborhood within walking, biking, and busing distance to a profusion of relatively affordable restaurants with special weekend brunch menus. I have yet to live in another city with so many food options in such a small area. It was during the years following this move that I truly fell in love with brunch. Alternating between cooking brunch for my friends, and meeting up for brunch, sometimes both Saturday and Sunday, I fell in love with the lightness and leisure, and the clamor of brunch that is different than other meals. Brunch in these restaurants had an ease surrounding it that spoke to the flexibility of the weekend, that projects may or may not need to get done, errands may or may not happen, but it didn’t really matter because the pleasure and ritual of brunch was enough. Brunch became an axiom for me that everything was alright. In times where I am okay, I am able to brunch. I am able to ignore money or heartbreak or illness, and instead think about spiced pumpkin and apples, tart cherries and arugula salads, squash soup and rosemary lemonade. I can think of french toast and goat cheese omelettes with basil and warm compotes and cream.
But no matter my income, I love that brunch has an air of community somehow stronger than other meals. In Seattle, even as the air turns cold some of the restaurants keep coffee stands outside for the wait-line patrons, who will raise the steaming cups to their lips and breathe out conversation, adjust the collars on their flannel shirts and knits. And in any city, not just Seattle, I love the people watching that comes along with brunch. There are young mothers meeting up, babies’ arms flailing, hungover students with mussed hair and university sweatpants, couples in unknowingly coordinated outfits, eyeing each other with a different kind of hunger. There are boat workers, with the smell of sea air lingering around their shoulders as their arms gently break open egg yolks and coffee creamer packets, there are tech workers in casual meetings and parents visiting their own parents. These are the moments where the city has its guard down, where I feel like I am at home, wherever I am at.
Brunch with my family is different. My mom and stepdad moved out west less than a year after I did. Only a four hour train ride away, I made a visit to see them every month or two. Over the ten years they had been together at that point, he, a lawyer turned chef, and my mom became foodies of a grand sort, dining out sometimes twice a day at the best restaurants. For a while eating with them was a special extravagance. However, I had started backing out of brunch with my step-dad even before my mom’s illness swept in and wreaked havoc upon the semblance of civility between us. What I took for general curmudgeonliness in his attitude when I was a teen grew to a nearly intolerable and embarrassing experience in social settings, particularly brunch. From sending dishes back to not tipping the servers based on the way they looked at him, to actual outbursts of “F*****G UNACCEPTABLE” over late food (to which I, mortified, threw double tip money down and vowed never to show myself there again), the enjoyment of brunch with my family slowly lost its sense of pleasure. Instead of a small celebration of my visit with them, the meal became a point of anxiety.
When cancer came calling it asked first for my mother’s hand. “Till death do us part,” it cooed. “I’m taken!” she retorted. And like a scorned lover, cancer stole away with her blood and her marrow, her hair and her smile, and most covetously it held her stomach hostage, rejecting all attempts at eating until the very act of opening her mouth became inefficacious, a white flag to the impending upheaval. She left her mouth closed for two years. We lost our appetites as well, with brunch but a wistful discussion point. For two years my stepdad documented every single thing that went in and out of her body. Food became an entry in a log, a tedium of attachment to any routine that might save her from the 60-80% chance of not making it the doctors had predicted.
But she did make it. Slowly, she is brunching again. She says her taste buds are different now. Foods she liked before, she can’t always taste. New ones in their stead.
Upon my return to Seattle everything had changed, as is wont to happen. The game company went broke and laid everyone off. My friends had moved on to different jobs, different routines, and for a while I drifted. I worked on boats, I traveled, I worked in a hospital. I fell in love and cooked grand brunches of summer flavors, of winter flavors, of devotion. I got heart broken and didn’t eat for a while. I sold everything I owned and moved 3,000 miles to begin again. The first year was hard, transitions and doubt and confusion on where the hell to buy groceries in this town. I went to Chicago and back to Iowa. I brunched with my dad and stepmom and best friend. I renewed my hope and excitement about my work, my life, my future.
So here I am, in Baltimore, nesting into my row home, and riding my bike as the fall leaves begin to blush. This morning was One World Cafe, butternut squash and sage omelette with ricotta, chocolate chai tea, giggling friends. I am okay, we are okay. Brunch, my great nurturer.