Beautiful, beautiful brunch

By Karen Virag.

If you start with rye and cokes or shots of bourbon before noon, you might be in trouble. However, if you add champagne to orange juice and call it a mimosa or pour vodka into a glass of Mott’s Clamato to make the distinctly Canadian Bloody Caesar, don’t worry about it. You, my friend, are at brunch. And brunch is a good thing.

Whence Brunch?

We all know that we call breakfast breakfast because it literally means to break a fast, don’t we? But why do we call brunch brunch? Well, etymologically speaking, “brunch” is a portmanteau word; that is, a word created by attaching the beginning of one word (breakfast) to the end of another (lunch). Portmanteau words are popular these days — think of that monstrous two-headed beast, thankfully now slain, Bennifer, or the clothing that sounds like a part on a sailboat, jeggings, a combination of jeans and leggings. To my mind the word “brunch” stands in contrast to such ridiculous words — it is clean and crisp and the very sound of it suggests a bite.

The word “brunch” first appeared in print in 1895, in an article by British author Guy Beringer, published in Hunter’s Weekly. The article, entitled “Brunch: A Plea,” argued for replacing heavy Sunday dinners with a late morning meal, which he called brunch. According to Beringer, “Brunch is cheerful and… talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings.” And so a tradition began.

Brunch used to have some odd-sounding companions who didn’t quite make it into this century, as we see from this excerpt from a magazine called The Academy, published in London in 1900. Though this is likely satirical, I suspect that the sly dig at the Germans was quite sincere:

“Brupper” is the joyous meal you have after a very late dance, for instance, and consists of supper, which might almost be breakfast. “Tunch” is rather a common meal in the country, and would be partaken of on coming back late in the afternoon, after a long morning’s hunting or bicycling. … “Brinner,” on the contrary, can only be eaten by those people whose custom it is to dine heavily in the middle of the day. Germans probably find it a favourite meal.

The original brunch was a substantial meal consumed by wealthy people at their country estates after the morning’s activities (such as fox hunting — or as Oscar Wilde so accurately described it, “the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible”). By the 1930s brunch had become very popular on this side of the pond, too, especially in hotels (because most restaurants were closed on Sundays). And as church attendance declined after the war, people began to seek Sunday activities that allowed them to sleep in. Around this time, the mother of all brunches began — mother’s day brunch, the earliest print references to which appeared in newspaper ads around 1944. Savvy restaurateurs know that mother’s day is the mother lode; as a consequence, mother’s day brunch is available in most places that serve food, from cruise boats on Okanagan Lake to the Calgary Zoo.

Where to Brunch?

Edmonton has many good brunch spots. Recently, I took in two quite different ones: the Bothy and the Harvest Room at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald.

Though a scotch and wine bar like the Bothy might seem an unlikely spot for brunch, the northside location (at 10124 124 Street) recently added brunch to its menu, though it is not really distinguishable from breakfast. There are four dishes available: eggs Benedict, served on housemade brioche; a vegetarian frittata; and French toast, made with brioche, chocolate caramel sauce and dried pecans. The fourth is a full Scottish breakfast, replete with beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, two kinds of meat (Lorne, a squarish sausage, and black sausage, aka blood pudding), fried eggs, fried potatoes and toast — more than enough food to keep workers on task all day, which the English Breakfast Society (and, yes, there really is such an entity) explains is the reason why breakfasts in the U.K. and Ireland are so huge. I would rate the Bothy’s full Scottish as quite good. I would rate the conversation I had about scotch with the amiable bartender, who gave me the lowdown on some of Bothy’s best single malts, and even let me sniff a couple, as equally good.

The Mac’s elegant Harvest Room is where one goes for a special brunch, say when rellies or out-of-town visitors come calling. Brunch there more closely resembles brunches from the turn of the last century, which were veritable groaning boards featuring such dishes as pickled pork, veal chops, pheasant, mutton croquettes, hashed game, anchovies, rissoles, galantines, meat in jelly, and savoury puddings and pies. Though not quite this exotic, the Harvest Room’s brunch does have a large buffet with cereals, fresh fruit, fruit smoothies, pastries, smoked salmon, cheeses, egg dishes, French toast, pancakes, shrimp, bacon, sausage, and potatoes. The tables are set with cute little pots of Hero jam; the coffee is good and abundant. One can also order brunch items off the menu. My friend Randolph had the eggs Benedict with smoked salmon and I had an omelette with spinach, mushrooms and cheddar. The meals came with toast, perfectly done fingerling potatoes and grilled tomatoes. Both were very good, and the dining room was sunny and lovely.

The Benediction of Brunch

God bless Guy Beringer for his long-ago linguistic playfulness, penned when Victoria was still queen and most of Alberta was in the North-Western Territory. And for his concern with human happiness. For, you see, in a postscript to his original 1895 article, Beringer also suggested that beer and whisky be served at brunch instead of tea and coffee, thus setting the stage for the future arrival of mimosas and the noble Bloody Caesar (and Mary). Furthermore — and this is something many of us are eternally grateful for — by eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, wrote Beringer, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday-night carousers.

And so it was.

And so may it always be.

Karen Virag is an Edmonton writer who loves brunch; she also loves language and thinks we have more than enough portmanteau words in our language (especially with the arrival of the spork).

A few favourites

Sunday brunch

Edmonton Petroleum Club
11110 108 Street, 780-474-3411
The club rolls out a special dining membership later this fall, all the better to enjoy their exquisite
Sunday brunch.

Café De Ville
10137 124 Street, 780-488-9188
Hard to pick a fave on this extensive menu: Irvings sausage with poached eggs? The polenta soufflé, or the café waffle with toasted macadamia nuts and orange cardamom cream?

10922 88 Avenue, 780-433-8369
Breakfast every day until 3pm and weekend brunch too? Gotta love that, and we do, especially the
huevos rancheros.

10522 124 Street, 780-485-6125
Substantially delicious breakfasty things like poached eggs, with cheddar chive biscuit, sausage gravy, chicken apple sausage and hash browns, along with sides of brown sugar bacon. Ok!

Culina Millcreek
9914 89 Avenue, 780-437-5588

Culina Muttart
9626 96A Street, 780-466-1181
We love the breakfast burrito.

Blue Plate Diner
10145 104 Street, 780 429-0740
Enjoy the basic Blue Plate Breakfast, the Ranch Skillet, and for kids at heart you can’t beat the Fat Elvis.

Weekend Breakfast

Madisons Grill at The Union Bank Inn
10053 Jasper Avenue, 780-401-2222
The spot for when you are in the mood for a dress-up-and-go downtown breakfast. The weekend menu is from 8am-11am. Eggs benny, omelettes and the cinnamon French toast highly recommended.

10030 Jasper Avenue, 587-520-8841
Home of the pannekoeken, the deliciously eggy buckwheat-rich pancake.

Elm Café
10140 117 Street (Take-away), 780-756-3356
Incredible breakfast sandwiches and very good coffee.

Under the High Wheel Noshery
8135 102 Street, 780 439-4442
Breakfast is served all day. Try any of the delish egg dishes, the savoury Belgian waffles, or the Pembina BLT.

Local Omnivore Food Truck
You’ll find it parked outside the Old Strathcona Farmers Market Saturday morning fueling market vendors and shoppers alike with market fries and several breakfast sandwiches — can’t go wrong with their BLT.

Hathaways Diner
13225 132 Street, 780-488-5989
Excellent diner breakfast. Unfortunately not open on Sundays.

Urban Diner
12427 102 Avenue, 780-488-7274
A toothsome vegetarian fritatta on a good-sized breakfast menu.