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Brunch: America’s Response To Sunday Mass

Why do Americans brunch so hard? 'I don't know,' says one young woman from Baltimore. 'I'm too drunk to think about it.'

The horror. The horror.
The horror. The horror.
Lavanya Ramanathan

WASHINGTON — "How," a woman next to me muttered, "can you have mimosas and no orange juice?"

We were at the bottomless mimosa refill station at BrunchCon, a sprawling brunch festival that will stop in four cities this spring and summer, and for a brief moment, the orange juice had run dry. The brunchers were restless.

We dared not say it aloud, but without that sunny splash of citrus, the elegant facade of brunch would collapse. Without juice, this was just drinking.

"You can never have too many mimosas," Lincoln Powell, 35, visiting from Ahoskie, North Carolina, explained as his wife posed for photos in front of an ivy-covered BrunchCon backdrop and organizers located more OJ.

Actually, I protested, it is entirely possible to have too many.

"You can?"

That was debatable at BrunchCon, which set up shop for one Sunday at the waterfront tourist magnet outside Washington, D.C., known as National Harbor, drawing 2,500 people who armed themselves upon entry with tote bags that proclaimed "Brunch so hard" and plastic flutes brimming with cheap champagne and orange juice.

For more than $60 a person, they were entitled to scoop up tiny pitaya bowls piled with granola and berries, and crostini with chorizo and adorable little sunny-side-up quail eggs, and spoonfuls of cookie dough, and strange little discs that its purveyor promised would taste like a molecular-gastronomy version of a B.L.T., if you could get past the fact that they looked like communion wafers sprinkled with Fruity Pebbles.

But the festival, whose bright orange logo bears the unmistakable silhouette of a mimosa glass, recognizes that cocktails are the lifeblood of the bruncher, the reason to rise in the morning (and the cause for a nap before dinner).

Brunch has waxed, the founder of BrunchCon told me, as our interest in religion has waned.

"I don't have time to get up at 7 or 8 to go to church. But I do have time to go brunch," confirmed Monica Zurita, 32, of Vienna, Virginia.

Brunch is its own kind of religion. Or at least a pagan ritual, practiced each Sunday by urban elites who are known to pound so many mimosas that it's easy to imagine a nationwide shortage of André on the horizon.

Brunch is a lifestyle. And friends, it is also a lewk, and that lewk is off-the-shoulder and frilly, and hobbles up the sidewalk in flesh-toned stilettos. Brunch wears coral-colored khakis and pocket squares tucked into baby-blue slim-fit blazers, or sometimes it rolls out of bed and throws on a cleanish T-shirt that says "Resting brunch face" or "You can't brunch with us."

All of this — but especially the mimosas and the loud and leisurely ways of brunchers — is why every Sunday, brunch cleaves us into Two Americas.

One America sneers at the drunken sea of humanity that emerges from restaurants at 4 p.m. to pose for the "Gram (and, occasionally, to puke in the streets.)

The other brunches.

We sidled up to the brunchers at BrunchCon in the hope that someone could explain our deep divide. You, ma'am, in the "Shut the brunch up" tank top — why do we, as Americans, feel compelled to brunch so hard?

"I don't know," replied Amanda, a 26-year-old from Baltimore who, approximately five minutes into the VIP hour, had already had words with organizers over her two-fisted mimosa strategy. "I'm too drunk to think about it," she sighed.

From class to crass

The first mention of the Sunday hybrid meal is often attributed to a late-19th-century British scribe, Guy Beringer, whose essay "Brunch: A Plea," called for a lighter, more sociable meal than the traditional laborious post-church meatfest.

Naturally, though, it was Americans who turned brunch into an excuse to day-drink. In her book Brunch: A History, sociologist Farha Ternikar traces the rise of the boozy brunch to Prohibition, when drinkers discovered that a little orange or tomato juice was a perfect camouflage for whatever illicit substances were in one's glass.

By the 1940s, brunch emerged as a status-symbol meal, with omelet stations and cellists at swank hotels, or fussy, tableside bananas foster at dining destinations such as Brennan's in New Orleans. It was a new ritual for the wealthy; for everyone else, a splurge reserved for Easter or Mother's Day.

Now, there are day-long DJ brunches in Dubai, and whole restaurants devoted only to brunch in Chicago.

And a meal that should be innocuous — who can object to a little French press and eggs after sleeping in? — has triggered a great national hand-wringing. Brunch has become yet another insufferable symbol of millennial idleness, proof that foodies are the absolute worst.

(Go on, just search for the phrase "brunch sucks," and realize that there are as many brunch thinkpieces as there are iterations of avocado toast.)

Shawn Micallef, a Toronto Star columnist, even penned The Trouble With Brunch, a book that connects brunch culture with a kind of class warfare. Micallef's call-out netted him his first death threat. People don't appreciate it, he notes sympathetically, when you take shots at things they love.

And so now, he wants to make clear: "Brunch is not the enemy. I don't actually condemn it."

But.

It's just all the baggage that brunch has taken on. There's the wait for a table. The tired servers and overpriced, middling food. (Anthony Bourdain has inveighed against the stale moonrocks that are called home fries.) There is the avoidance of the gym and chores and adulthood. The willfully decadent day-drinking, which Micallef sees as a way for the middle class to feel as if it's living dangerously — a bourgeois distraction.

"Brunch," he says, "is like a little bomb you set off in your day."

Bottoms up, pants off

According to Google Trends, searches for "brunch" have climbed steadily worldwide since 2004. But the area that Googles the word "brunch" more than anywhere else? Washington.

It's no surprise, really, given that the city's population has, in the past decade, grown increasingly young, urbane and, well, lonely.

"I grew up watching Sex and the City, and they were always brunching," explained Richard Adams, 36, of D.C., at BrunchCon with his husband and friends. Now it's as if he's Carrie. "My friends are my family," Adams says. Mimosa mornings are the family meal.

So, the capital city is the capital of brunch, and ground zero for brunch backlash: We have drag brunches and "day parties," a "Bad & Boozy Trap Brunch" and hookah brunch and the particularly debaucherous LaBoum Brunch, a party where the shades are drawn and phones are locked away.

At LaBoum, "people's pants have come off, mysteriously," somewhere between the breakfast pastries and the frittatas, said Christopher Lynch, a restaurateur who co-founded the weekly party nearly a decade ago. "People's bras have come off, mysteriously."

Brunch in Washington once was a meal "where you had to really consider if you wanted to have an alcoholic drink, because we're so boring, that stodgy," he says. But "somewhere along the way, this bottomless thing came into play." Bottomless — which keeps brunchers drinking for hours for one low, low price — then rippled through the restaurant community, he says, particularly in cities where restaurants operate like dominoes, one teetering directly next to another.

Now, Sunday morning looks an awful lot like Saturday night. "I remember people just falling out of La Boum into the tree box," said Lynch. "And I was like, "This is not a good look for you. Or me.""

Brunch is like a little bomb you set off in your day.

Lauren Bliss of Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, came to BrunchCon with her daughter, Lindsay Edwards, in matching T-shirts ("Momma needs a mimosa") to mark her 59th birthday. She remembers the time before bottomless, when you might have a drink or two, a little hair of the dog, but the champagne didn't flow quite so readily. Bliss taught the kids a few things about drinking, she said with a smirk as she balanced a spicy bloody mary. "They taught me a few things, too."

Sarelyn Radecke launched BrunchCon in Los Angeles in 2016, when she was just 24 and working in marketing for the event ticketing site Eventbrite. Observing which events sold briskly taught her that "anything involving alcohol does really well."

A brunch festival checked all the boxes: food + booze + a selfie-friendly "experience," in the parlance of those who market to millennials. She added a DJ, who flitted from Cardi B to Bell Biv DeVoe while the brunchers turned the pavement into a makeshift dance floor and got to twerking. Yes, at brunch.

"There's a classy brunch culture, and a not-classy brunch culture," Radecke acknowledged. The drinking "may be a little destructive," but she argued that it's largely the domain of the young. "I don't see what the problem is. That specific culture, you grow out of it."

For now, the brunch set is living a life of leisure that can, she said, begin with pancakes at 10 a.m. and end, godknowshow, at 10 p.m.

"What else are you doing on Sunday?" said Grace Kim, 26, of Rosslyn, Virginia, her glittered eyelids twinkling in the sun. She knew brunch has its haters. She proclaimed it her favorite meal.

"It's a classy drinking situation," she says. "It's what adults do."

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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