Food and Work: Secular Church – Will Brunch Save Your Soul?

secular church brunch

On more than one Sunday morning in 2011, my alarm would go off at 8:50 a.m., and I’d put on my glasses, throw on some sweats and tiptoe out of my sand-kissed, drafty beach house in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset neighborhood. Moving like molasses, I walked as briskly as I could up the two blocks to Outerlands, a restaurant just steps from the Pacific Ocean. The atmosphere is like the dining room of a ship, and their brunch is almost as legendary as their waiting list. The list would be placed out front at 9 a.m., even though they didn’t actually open until 10. After I put my name down, I’d go back to bed for another 45 minutes.

Why did I have to bother with this nonsense? Because one time, as a weekend brunch naïf, I arrived promptly at 10 a.m. and was told something horrifying like “Right now, it’s looking like 80 to 90.” As in, minutes!

So the throngs who do not use my crafty approach—and I’m clearly not the only person who has developed one—and yet wish to enjoy one of Outerlands’ acclaimed open-face breakfast sandwiches, will spend the better part of their Saturday or Sunday loitering on the street corner. Which—amazingly—many people seem positively thrilled to do.

The reason this ritual sticks out is that, as Americans, we are usually determined to do whatever it takes to minimize the time spent obtaining, preparing and cleaning up after a meal. But many of us will gladly spend half our Sunday in pursuit of brunch. Simmering on the sidewalk suggests a silent protest against our workaholic society. It’s as if to say, “See, I have work-life balance—I’ve got all day to stand in this line, out of my sheer enthusiasm for eggs Benedict!” It also suggests a rejection of all the solo dining and of the idea that food is fuel.

With our working more hours than ever, and with that bringing about changes in what and how we eat, the weekend brunch ritual is as much about not eating yogurt or a protein bar (alone, and on the go) as it is about the brunch itself.

The Meaning of Brunch

While brunch is in America’s roots, its cultural status has been elevated lately.

If we are willing to admit that our Google searches are a reflection of who we are, then brunch has become more popular than ever. Evidence of brunching on Saturdays in addition to Sundays has been visible among many Americans since the 1990s, and interest in brunch has grown consistently since 2004.

Ever since British journalist Guy Beringer first coined the term in 1895, “brunch” has carried deeper meaning than merely a cross between breakfast and lunch. It speaks to our weekly rhythms and signifies a slowing down, a pause.

If you’re making brunch at home, much of the fun is in the thinking about brunch: flipping through favorite family recipes or refining your search online—did you want orange or vanilla icing on those cinnamon rolls? You undertake this research, of course, at the pace of a starfish. You shuffle around in your pj’s and your slippers, your bed head morphing into new shapes as the hours tick by, and you slowly sip your coffee. You read the news, or that magazine article that’s been dog-eared for weeks, collecting dust on your nightstand.

And brunch is not about fortification but reward. It’s two meals in one so you get twice the calories, right? In all likelihood, that no-carbs diet takes a break on Sundays, and you go all in with your hubby on blueberry pancakes from scratch. You know the ones. Or at least I hope you do. The ones so fluffy the berries bounce right off. Unlike the usual toss of a Nature Valley granola bar from your loved one on the way out the door, brunch is about taking a moment to be together in the morning for a change.

Did you know that we’re eating alone more than ever before? Conviviality and commensality have become endangered species in American society. A few years ago, Duke sociologists found that the average number of social ties per person has dropped by a third over the past generation. Over half of us say we don’t have a single person aside from immediate family we could confide in as a close friend. Intuitively, this feels wrong. But people who actually study happiness for a living (namely, researchers at UC Berkeley) confirm this concern more definitively: they find that no factor is as important to happiness as social connectedness.

So with brunch, the pace is different, the guilt is on hold, and the meal calls for company. That’s true whether you’re going to a restaurant or cooking yourself. As Beringer wrote, “[Brunch] would promote human happiness in other ways as well. Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting. It is talk-compelling. It . . . sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”

Brunch as Competitive Sport

While brunch is a nationwide trend, the scene in San Francisco has a markedly competitive vibe. In 2014, Time magazine declared San Francisco the brunch capital of America. Here, we brunch like our life depends on it.

There’s Outerlands and Zazie, Nopa and Farmerbrown. But surely one of the greatest arenas for the gladiators of brunch is Plow: the closet-size corner café in Potrero Hill that, through blood sugar deficit, renders emotionally stable, high-performing adults into doe-eyed puppy dogs. We stand there, gazing up at the hostess as she breezes in and out of the café’s front door—those gates of opportunity, of plenty, of hot coffee. We try to make eye contact, to plead with her. “Please, pick me!,” we ask our eyes to say.

At first, the long wait seemed like a value add. My brother-in-law and his girlfriend and I got the chance to catch up. We scaled the surrounding hills and took in the views. But after returning to Plow at the specified time—they had quoted an hour—and huddling on the cold, shadowed street, hands submerged deep in pockets, searching for warm corners, it started to feel more like . . .  training. This is the big leagues, I realized. There are no little beeper devices to tell you when your table is ready. No mimosas or Bloody Marys to take the edge off. Just a tattooed waitress with a nostril cuff who holds your fate in her hands.

But we endured.

Another powerful motivator, and not just for me but for countless Americans, is that brunch is one of the only times many people get to enjoy foods from the breakfast category. I was stunned to learn from the Technomic Breakfast Consumer Trend Report, as reported in Food Business News, that just 26% of us eat breakfast every day; 80% eat it sometimes. (Yet at least 63% feel that skipping breakfast is unhealthy.)

Nearly 40% of Americans say they skip breakfast because of lack of time. So when we do eat breakfast, speed and ease are the meal’s enablers. Yogurt has been the single fastest-growing food item in the American diet over the last generation, and more than two-thirds of Americans eat a portable breakfast.

Breakfast is about fortifying you for the day ahead, and doing it as quickly as possible to get your butt out the door on time. Brunch, though, brunch is different. It’s not about deprivation or efficiency. The food at brunch is about feeling good. Yes, brunch is often over the top. But at least it’s real. At brunch, there are no nutrition claims or ingredient lists to decipher, no packaging to dispose of. There is just food on the table.

The problem isn’t that we never treat ourselves—it’s how we feel about it when we do.

“We’re not really interested in cuisine,” says Clifford A. Wright, author of A Mediterranean Feast and an expert on Mediterranean food and culture, noting that this is a trait unique to American life. “We’re interested in nutrition, dietetics, and health. Vegan, gluten-free, low-carb—it’s all denial based, Puritan almost.”

This provocative statement is at the heart of our collective food psyche.

Secular Church

Generally speaking, the wealthier a country is, the less likely its citizens are to be highly religious. In Senegal and Pakistan, for instance, nearly 100% of respondents to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey said religion plays a very important role in their lives. Compare that to about 10% in Japan and just over 20% in Australia, Canada and Germany. The United States, however, is an outlier. We are the wealthiest of all 39 countries in the survey, and yet 54% of Americans consider religion quite important.

But Americans are becoming less religious over time.

In its 2015 Religious Landscape Study, Pew Research Center found that 22.8% of U.S. adults say they do not have a religious affiliation of any kind. That’s up from 16.1% in 2007. Meet the “nones.” The unaffiliated now outnumber both Catholics and mainline Protestants, at 20.8% and 14.7%, respectively.

I don’t mean to celebrate or bemoan America’s declining attachment to organized religion. Instead I am pointing out that it coincides with the nation’s exhaustion epidemic. At the same time that we are overworked and busier than ever, causing us to skip lunch breaks and eat a collection of snacks instead of real food, we are more available on Sunday mornings than we’ve ever been.

Put another way: Brunch is secular church. Sunday service for the socially starved. Something for the nothings. Specifically, something soulful and restorative.

I wish I had come up with the term “secular church,” but it comes from Alana Conner, PhD, a cultural scientist at Stanford University who directs a center there called Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions, or SPARQ. Dr. Conner explains that in parts of the United States where people aren’t as religious, the brunch gathering is the closest substitute for the experience of church: getting out of the house, marking the turn of the calendar, breaking bread together.

Dr. Conner says it used to be that “if you’re eating alone, you’re doing something wrong.” She goes on: “Brunch is definitely an institution that is trying to maintain, or resurrect even, the social practice of eating in a culture where we have been pulled further and further from the table.”

Secular church is about affirming community, standing around on the curb with people—like at a block party—and then sitting down together to eat face-to-face for a change.

Now, there are plenty of brunch naysayers who consider this meal the epitome of gentrification and nothing but conspicuous consumption. So far, though, it’s the best antidote we’ve got to the epidemic of social isolation in this country.

So, elbows out, bottoms up, and get in line. It seems that brunch, well, it might just save your soul.

More from the Food at Work series:

Food at Work: The Lifeblood of San Francisco’s Tech Boom

All Work and No Breakfast: Food as Fuel

Food and Work: Are Meal Kits the Answer?

Secular Church: Will Brunch Save Your Soul? was published in the Spring 2017 issue. © 2017 Edible San Francisco. Illustration © 2016 Leigh Wells.

Adapted from the book, Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies–How What We Eat Defines Who We Are (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2016).