(664) The Trouble With Brunch [Book review]

BrZWE3tCUAAzBZyThe Trouble With Brunch: Work, Class and the Pursuit of Leisure
Shawn Micalleff
Paperback and e-book, 112 pages
Coach House Press: Toronto, 2014
978-1-55245-285-1

Brunch is a problem. Sorry, but it’s true. When you are done with Shawn Micallef’s hundred-page manifesto on that meal you may still like to eat it but will hopefully see that plate in a little wider a frame. Grease, dairy products, carbs and caffeine – sometimes with alcohol – served up in a renovated storefront with exposed brick is not just a meal but an expression of cultural programming.

Micalleff first knew brunch as a once-practical expression of a pretty reasonable Canadian prosperity. Now an intellectual labourer in Toronto, he grew up in Windsor, Ontario when it was a serious place of industry, a car building town. Apparently, brunch has evolved into a component of a less satisfying, weirder, more complicated and much less certain global economy. In short, brunch is dangerously delusional.

Given a bit of focus, brunch becomes an enormously instructive object in regard to where we are at socio-economically. Brunch is eaten the world over in gentrified, design-ey environments. Think mason jars for vases on little tables. Brunch would seem to be something well off people, a leisure class or at least a middle class, would eat to express their sheer joy. Not quite. Brunch is eaten by an increasingly precarious pseudo middle class.

Brunch is an ersatz token of aspiration, not a marker of reality, according to Micalleff. This is most intensively true for members of the so-called creative class. A class that often finds itself deep in debt, precariously employed and by way of income and other verifiable measures can be considered a good bit worse off than its parents.

Brunch is a compensation. Micalleff warns us not to fall for its appearances. Whatever we think we are getting in terms of atmosphere as we tuck into our eggs benny is a poor substitute for the substantive material gains organized labour, and the overseers thereof, realized after the Second World War. The job descriptions may have been simpler in Windsor in the sixties and seventies but they were attached to real prosperity. Today’s university-educated digital workers? Well, maybe not so much.

Creative class toilers, battered by the cost of urban housing and student loans, can barely afford their overpriced brunches. Thanks to digital technology they also appear to have less free time available to burn lining up for elaborate meals, but they do anyway. Brunchers seem brutally unaware of their predicament. Where spare time and public consumption once signified wealth brunch now seems to say, “I’m a loser and don’t even know it.”

The Trouble With Brunch could be misunderstood as a not very nice attack on people expressing consumer choice in an open market. Suburban-poverty.com’s editorial team, unfortunately, felt some of this pain. Having all lived in Parkdale in the 1990s we were at Toronto’s brunch Ground Zero. We just can’t let go, even twenty years later, of our warm memories: internet dates, friendship shared and carbs ingested. On hungover Sundays in the winter in particular brunch helped make up for our crap jobs and low wages, made us feel better (than we now know we were!).

Alas, we’re only human. When Easy first opened, years before it went to shit, we were there. We remember the Mockingbird, long gone, and Mitzy’s Sister, now called The Sister. And The Swan, oh The Swan. If only we’d known the meaning of the self-esteem disaster we were participating in, we’d have probably stayed in our apartment and eaten Captain Crunch or fled back to the sprawl that much earlier.  Brunch is the new crystal meth.

Still, we cannot deny Micalleff is onto something very important. Brunch speaks to the character of Canadian society. While reading The Trouble With Brunch we kept thinking of the statistics-laden battleship of Thomas Piketty’s which has been such a best seller: Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The latter takes a different path to the same place: inequality and social difficulty. There’s a lot to be said for both works but we’ll give Micalleff extra points for accessibility and for putting much of himself before readers. His book is well written, lively. Certainly both books contain tough findings and they deserve to be read.

This blog places inequality alongside climate change as the most important two issues of this era. We’d like to have seen some content about oppression-by-commodity and brunch. All the fruit, vegetables, coffee, cocoa, spices and such going into breakfast for class confused Canadians is produced in the global south. Workers there have a lot more to worry about than lining up on Sundays at an overpriced urban eatery. What of all that?

It’s certainly a little frightening to ask where will the brunching class be in twenty-five years. We’ll have to put our forks down for a bit.  At least long enough to read this important and welcome book.  You’ll have to do a little work on yourself during and after the reading of The Trouble With Brunch, but you’ll be better off for it.

Brunch is dead, long live brunch.

Shawn Micalleff on Twitter
The Trouble With Brunch | Coach House Press

See also: (299) The Housing Monster [Book review]

image: courtesy of author