Visit theallusionist.org/brunch for more reading matter and to hear this episode
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, throw language at the wall to see if it sticks. There’s a delicious episode coming up, so whet your appetites with an etymological snack sponsored by the Tasting Room.
Which came first: orange the fruit, or orange the colour? Orange as the name of the fruit can be traced back to first century India, to a version of the Ayurvedic medical text the Charaka Samhita, in which an orange tree is called ‘naranga’, which itself derived from the old Sanskrit word ‘narunga’, which may have meant ‘fruit like elephants’. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess they were referring to the similarity of the textures of the skin, rather than the orange’s trunk, tusks, grey colour or body shape. Unless oranges have changed a lot in the past couple of thousand years.
The term naranga travelled with the fruits west along trade routes, going through Persian, Arabic, Armenian, Italian, Spanish and French variations before arriving in English around the 14th century. Orange being used to describe the colour is first recorded in the early 1500s, before which they used such terms as ‘saffron’, gold, amber, and the Old English ‘ġeolurēad’, which meant yellow-red. So all of you who had money on the fruit preceding the colour, go and collect your winnings. And why not celebrate with a tipple from Tasting Room, the wine club which will send you a case of wine every quarter tailored to your very own exquisite palate. Go to tastingroom.com/allusionist to order your sample kit of wines for just $6.95.
And now, on with the show.
Motel. Email. Chocoholic. Labradoodle. Fanzine. Tanzania. Jazzercise. Breathalyzer. Televangelist. Chillax. Smog. Bromance. Velcro. Brangelina. Chrismukkah. Podcast. Jorts.
Modern English is awash with portmanteau terms, words formed from two or more words spliced together. The word ‘Portmanteau’, meaning a piece of luggage, is itself a portmanteau word from the 16th century, uniting the French words ‘porter’, meaning ‘to carry’, and ‘manteau’, meaning cloak. But credit for the Frankenword sense of 'portmanteau' goes to Lewis Carroll, in Alice Through The Looking Glass. Alice asks Humpty Dumpty to help her make sense of the Jabberwocky poem, full of portmanteaus like slithy, mimsy, galumph and chortle. “You see it's like a portmanteau,” says Humpty Dumpty, “there are two meanings packed up into one word.”
Today, I want to unpack one particular portmanteau, and that portmanteau is 'brunch'.
Oh, you think you know what brunch means, but DO YOU?
Yeah, you do, but do you REALLY?
DP: The word itself is clearly breakfast and lunch. A kneejerk definition would be a meal that is part breakfast and part lunch.
HZ: That’s Dan Pashman, host of the food podcast The Sporkful and author of Eat More Better. We met for brunch and I forced him to fall down this semantics rabbithole with me. Because I want to know: if brunch combines breakfast and lunch, does it do so by combining the typical foodstuffs of the two meals, or by taking place at some mid point between the typical breakfast and lunch times?
DP: In terms of time of day, it’s usually later than a typical breakfast, you could have brunch at noon.
HZ: Some brunch buffets run til 4pm.
DP: That’s part of my issue with brunch. In theory it should be between breakfast and lunch; if you’re going to have brunch, it’s usually filling; you might only have two meals that day.
HZ: So the brunch is a replacement for breakfast and lunch? It’s the intent?
HZ: Brunch = time-dependant?
DP: I would argue: ‘breakfast’ = ‘break fast’. Whatever the first meal of the day is for you, whenever that is, you are breaking your fast since the previous night, so the first meal of the day, technically speaking, should always be called breakfast.
HZ: Pedant! So therefore any food can be a breakfast food? What if you haven’t been to sleep? Like in Gremlins? You’re opening up more problems than you’re solving.
DP: I’m very literal. If you’ve been up all night… How long do you have to go without eating for it to be considered a fast?
HZ: If you’ve been up all night then eat at 6am, is that just second dinner?
DP: I’ll have to ponder. If you stay up all night forever, do you never have breakfast again?
HZ: After a couple of weeks you’ll die, so your question becomes insignificant.
DP: I’ll grant you, for the sake of linguistic expedience, it can be the first meal of the day. But it has to replace both breakfast and lunch. If you eat three meals in a day, you did not have brunch.
HZ: What about if you had brunch, then afternoon tea, then dinner?
DP: Afternoon tea could be a snack.
HZ: Afternoon tea is the brunch of the afternoon. There’s just no portmanteau of those meals.
DP: Yeah, there’s no linner.
HZ: The origins of the term 'brunch' do seem to support Dan’s hypothesis that to qualify as brunch, it should replace two meals. The first official appearance of the word was in an 1895 edition of the British publication Hunter’s Weekly, in an article entitled ‘Brunch: A Plea’ written by Guy Beringer, in which he suggested that people who’d been up late on a Saturday night might prefer to sleep in on Sunday morning then eat a meal that was later than breakfast but lighter than lunch. The idea caught on, but brunch exploded in popularity in the United States in the 1950s, as the appeal of Sunday morning boozing began to overtake that of going to church.
DP: If breakfast is the first meal of the day, and brunch is a hybrid of the first two meals of the day, and you only eat two meals in the day, then the first meal must be brunch.
HZ: There are several drinks which are considered particularly brunchy, but what of the typical brunch foods?
DP: The foods themselves, typically I find most brunch items on the menu are not a fusion of breakfast and lunch foods. They’re half typical breakfast foods, half lunch foods.
HZ: So you might have cereal on a roast chicken?
DP: no, the left side of the menu might be eggs, the right side, steaks.
HZ: Surely there is a crossover dish?
DP: Oh yes. Eggs Benedict - eggs make you think of the morning, that’s why it isn’t a dinner food. But eggs benedict is a fork and knife thing, a production. It’s not the kind of food you can grab on the go. It’s big, it’s hearty. Brunch is more leisurely; usually it’s the weekend; and so the idea of having a more substantial thing like eggs benedict makes me think a little more brunchy.
HZ: Are there foods that are too lunch to be brunch?
DP: I don’t think any food is too much one meal to be any other meal.
HZ: People seem to get very agitated about what constitutes brunch. Why is it such an emotive topic.
DP: people have much too narrow views of what can be eaten and what times of day. They can’t handle that ambiguity.
HZ: How do you feel about the term ‘brunch’?
DP: I don’t mind it; I’m a fan of food portmanteaus.
HZ: Of course, Captain Spork. What about leakfast?
DP: Brunch = chronological. Starts with breakfast, ends with lunch.
HZ: And sounds quite crunchy.
DP: And hearty. Which it should be, if it’s replacing two meals.
HZ: Can you make or break a foodstuff with the name? Is it important for the name to be appetizing? 'Cronut' is not appetizing.
DP: I do think marketing and branding matter when selling something. In the case of the cronut, the name bothers some people more than others. When a word is new, it sounds weird and annoying. The first person to hear ‘brunch’ probably didn’t like it.
HZ: Dan himself is a food neologist. When my pancakes and bacon arrived, Dan grabbed the bacon and constructed a grid upon which he then placed the pancakes. The idea being that by elevating the pancakes, the bottom ones in the stack are no longer prone to becoming soggy. This technique is known as the ‘porklift’.
There’s a lot more linguistic and culinary ingenuity in Dan’s book Eat More Better. If you think there’s no way somebody could harness one of WB Yeats’s bleakest poems in order to explain all you can eat buffets, THINK AGAIN. And you can hear Dan’s show The Sporkful every week at sporkful.com.
This episode of The Allusionist was recorded over brunch in the Square Diner on Leonard St, New York City. It was produced by Anne Saini, Dan Pashman and me, Helen Zaltzman, and brought to you by Squarespace.com. You can build an online menu for your new brunch cafe, make a gallery of your eggs benedict pictures, host the podcast tracing your quest for the perfect brunch - Squarespace makes all of that easy, except for curing your indigestion afterwards. You can get a 10% discount on Squarespace for a year if you use the code ‘Allusion’.
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Radiotopia is a collective of the tastiest shows you can feed your ears. Among them is Radio Diaries, which has been telling the extraordinary stories of ordinary life for nearly twenty years - it’s a really incredible document of human existence. You can find it, and all the Radiotopia shows, at Radiotopia.fm.
Radiotopia is possible thanks to the generosity of you listeners, the Knight Foundation, and Mailchimp. Mailchimp’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is...
extrados, or EXtrados, noun, the upper or outer curve of an arch. Often contrasted with intrados.
Try using it in an email today.
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