Review of:
Lunch: A History (Megan Elias) and Brunch: A History (Farha Ternikar).
Megan Elias. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. Pp. 204, index, bibliography. Farha Ternikar. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. Pp. 164, index, bibliography.

Lunch: A History by Megan Elias and Brunch: A History by Farha Ternikar are two titles from The Meal Series, part of the Rowman & Littlefield Studies in Food and Gastronomy. There are five titles in this series thus far, and based on the two I have had the pleasure of reading and reviewing for Digest, this series has great potential and will definitely inspire historians, folklorists, and chefs, and the budding foodie in all of us.

Megan Elias has written an erudite and fascinating study of lunch describing everything from the infinite variety of foods eaten for lunch to the endlessly intricate ways people perform lunchtime traditions whether at home, at work, or at school. Within her first chapter on the history of lunch, Elias asks candidly “did cavemen lunch?”(5). She indicates that they probably did not, but then she delves deeply into the archaeological record, revealing how the Neolithic cook had no choice but to rely on the tools and materials at hand to catch food and prepare it. Historically, whether it was a meal shared among medieval farmers working in the fields or the communal repast of monastic orders confined by ritual observances, lunch has often occurred between work and prayer (13-14), and in more modern times, between breakfast and supper. At the end of the eighteenth century, the term “luncheon” came into fashion in England, and was used by novelists like Jane Austen, whose Bennett sisters of Pride and Prejudice fame described a meal they arranged in a local inn as “the nicest cold luncheon in the world” (Austen 2004, 170). In France, however, ‘lunch with a fork’ (dejeuner a la fourchette) became the designated meal of choice of the late afternoon and included solid dishes (oysters, melons, chicken) and hence the need for a fork (21).

Elias’s first chapter emphasizes how North American lunchtime traditions reflected historic changes such as child laborers eating lunch on the factory floor during the industrial era, shift workers eating at “lunch wagons” (29), and wartime female factory workers eating at lunch counters and “automats” (36). What follows in chapter two is Elias’s impressive research surrounding global lunchtime offerings from the fast food paninis available at Tim Hortens in Canada to the tightly molded rice dishes of the Bento box in Japan or the puffed rice, chickpeas and samosas of “tiffins” in India (50, 65). In chapters three and four, Elias concentrates on the concepts of “lunch at home” versus “lunch away from home,” in which the North American perspective presides. The strength of both of these chapters lies in the author’s ability to weave contextual detail with historic fact. Throughout Lunch: A History, Elias makes a clear and significant argument that lunch – the meal and its performance – has often been heavily influenced by gender. This is particularly evident through Elias’s references to cookbooks - many authored by women - whose recipes reflect the continual dynamic that has become the lunchtime meal. The last chapter of this book concentrates on the influence of the arts and popular media on lunch in which Elias includes examples from European fine art, English literature, children’s bedtime stories, and North American films and television series.

Within Lunch: A History, there are many instances where the same examples are repeated in different chapters; it is nothing that a thorough editing would eliminate for a future edition. Elias’s detailed history of lunch and lunchtime traditions would have been further enhanced by the inclusion of some actual recipes. Lunch: A History is nicely illustrated with black and white photographs primarily from historic collections. While a helpful index and detailed notes are both key to a text of this nature, the extensive bibliography will wet readers’ appetites in wanting to know more about lunch and its ongoing history.

Brunch: A History is another interesting text in The Meal Series in which author Farha Ternikar addresses a meal of more recent history than breakfast, lunch, or supper. Ternikar has provided a descriptive analysis of brunch by first tracing its origins to the “hunter’s breakfast” in Britain (2). It is not surprising then, that the term “brunch” was first coined in the British periodical, Hunter’s Weekly in 1895 (2-3). While brunch has such a strong link with the United Kingdom, specific brunch style dishes have been eaten in other parts of the world long before brunch became a popular meal; dim sum in China, huevos rancheros in Mexico, and le grand petit dejeuner in France, to name a few (1-2). Brunch became a well-known American tradition because of its popularity in both New Orleans and New York City in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (3-5). Stemming from New Orleans’ restaurants like Madame Begue and later, Brennans, Southern dishes like pain perdu (lost bread) or French toast, eggs Benedict, eggs bourguignon, and omelets with seafood became well-known brunch fare (3). Deserving a study unto itself, the ubiquitous brunch favourite, eggs Benedict, had its origins at two New York City establishments: the Waldorf Hotel and Delmonico’s (5). Ternikar’s thorough description of the many eateries and restaurants in North American cities that contributed to the popularity of having brunch ‘out’ are nicely contrasted by her analysis of how brunch became the weekend meal of choice to have ‘in,’ especially among homemakers and their families. What becomes evident in themed chapters about “brunch at home” and “brunch away from home,” is how the brunch meal directly impacted the lives of women from the 1950s onwards who identified with a meal that allowed them to spend less time preparing food in the kitchen and more time with friends and family. As Ternikar emphasizes, “brunch was a meal with no rules, and no established menu” (57) and while women and their families have long been excited by the freedom that such a meal provides, chefs and cooks have had the freedom to develop and re-invent brunch food and drinks in their restaurants, cookbooks, and multi-media forums. Following this analysis, Ternikar describes how brunch has become the trendiest way to celebrate specific occasions and holidays like Mother’s Day, weddings, Christmas and Easter (58-61). In her final chapter, Ternikar discusses how brunch has played a role in popular culture (95-115), and her references to brunch events on television and film are noteworthy. What gives this chapter punch is Ternikar’s notable observations on how television series like All in the Family, Gossip Girl, and How I Met Your Mother frequently depict the interconnection between brunch and class status (98-103).

While Ternikar’s study of brunch has many merits, the text overall is continually marred by the repetition of similar material. There is not only an overlap of common themes between chapters but on at least one occasion, a lengthy quotation has been repeated verbatim in the same chapter with different publication dates (65, 72-73). It is unfortunate that the author, and more importantly her editorial team, failed to eliminate a myriad of repeated facts because the repetition is distracting to the reader. Despite these criticisms, however, Brunch: A History is a well-researched and fascinating study about a meal that has received, up until now, very little attention. Ternikar has integrated black and white photographs of brunch dishes throughout her text, and she has provided well-organized endnotes, an index and a substantial bibliography. I especially applaud Ternikar’s inclusion of several wonderful brunch recipes, which begs the question: what’s the good of a food study without a few recipes?

References Cited

  • Austen, Jane. 2004. Pride and Prejudice. Oxford World Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.