Julia Pandl is author of Memoir of the Sunday Brunch ($13.95, Algonquin)
I smile when I see people enjoying brunch. Finally I am one of them.
When I was young, Sunday brunch was the enemy. Each week I watched brunch goers smiling, drinking, and eating, and I wished, quite simply, they would go away. My father owned a restaurant -- famous for its Sunday brunch -- so we, my eight siblings and I, worked these brunches and we worked hard.
Every Saturday night, beginning when I was young enough to be lounging around, watching The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, and continuing until I was old enough to be out and about with friends, I looked at Sundays with hostility. The morning always came way too early, and the day was eight straight hours of complete lunacy, beginning and ending with my father, his goofy paper chef hat, and his crazy clicking tongs.
Things are different now. I'm in my forties. The Love Boat and Fantasy Island are long gone, and the family restaurant is closed. Now I'm the one sitting at the table, smiling, drinking, eating. I can finally appreciate Sunday brunch, the way we are meant to appreciate it, for its companionship, its cocktails, and its cuisine. Sunday brunch (also not bad on Saturday) is sublime. It's the perfect, guilt free union of sweet and savory eats, plus downright awe-inspiring drinks.
The best Sunday brunches should be a spectacle. There should be fine linens. There should be drama. There should be chefs wearing neckwear, holding tongs, and wielding spatulas. Brunch is an occasion. It's somebody's birthday, or baptism, or baby shower, or just chats among friends. It's Fat Sunday, and normal people look forward to it. Who knew? Brunch is the one meal where the diet goes out the window, we all check our cholesterol medication on the way in, and loosen our belts on the way out.
There are a few essential "ingredients," I believe, that make up the perfect brunch. For an eater and drinker like me, it begins with anticipation. I think about meals, sometimes two or three meals in advance. Is that normal? Let's face it, anticipation is half the fun of just about anything. It's opening our eyes, rolling over in bed, and being excited that there's a Bloody Mary in our future, along with a stack of blueberry pancakes, a ham and cheese omelet, and a slab of prime rib. It's wondering, Will the butter on the pancakes be whipped? Should I have the cheesecake or the Bananas Foster?
Another "key" brunch ingredient for me is a cocktail. Especially a Bloody Mary. We take our Bloody Mary very seriously in Wisconsin. For us, it's not just a drink. A good Bloody Mary causes you to lean back just to take it in, and a great one will make you smile and clap your hands. (I can't ignore the fact that some people consider Mimosas essential in the brunch department, but after a rough bout with a few too many at 17, I'm not a fan.)
If you make reservations at a good, true brunch establishment, the first thing to land on your table should be a basket filled with sweet things, another brunch ingredient on my "essentials" list. Warm, soft, fat cinnamon buns are best, but anything with an obscene amount of butter and brown sugar will do. We hardly ever take the time to make these things at home, so indulge yourself, have two (I won't tell Jenny Craig if you don't). Plus, if there's butter on the table, use it, and don't dare ask for margarine instead. That's sacrilege, and this is Sunday after all.
Speaking of substitutions, I see a lot of folks choosing egg whites, or eggbeaters, over real eggs these days. Sorry, but no. With all due respect to those on the eve of angioplasty, get an omelet, and throw some ham and cheese in it while you're at it. Real, fresh eggs are another brunch essential. Egg Beaters belong on a brunch menu the same way the Wicked Witch of the West belongs in a Playboy centerfold. Call me crazy, but eggs should come out of a chicken, not a lab. Egg Beaters contain "natural flavors," "spices," candy sweeteners (why, I have no idea), and guar gum, this last ingredient being a thickening agent, that is also used as a laxative. Yummy. Not.
Now that you've decided to order real eggs, let's talk about the egg's best friend, bacon, an absolute brunch essential. Whoever invented the brunch buffet, did it with bacon in mind. Bacon was made for the indulgence that defines Sunday brunch. It's a basic law of human nature: We would never make seven pieces of bacon for ourselves to eat, but we will eat seven pieces of bacon if someone else has made them. And to deny yourself bacon at a Sunday brunch is like refusing to wear the glasses at a 3-D movie -- what's the point?
Not a fan of bacon, then how about a side of glistening hot sausage? Two words of advice, though -- be careful. Eating sausage, for me, is a little like spending the weekend at the beach with a bunch of old college friends. In an effort to really maximize the experience, things always tend to get a little reckless. The first sausage link is a good idea, and maybe the second, but after that, I start to lose count. Inevitably, the next morning I'll clutch my chest against a scorching case of heartburn, contemplate a trip to the emergency room, and think, It was that last one, I never should have had that last one.
Another brunch essential for most people are pancakes. But one is really enough. Anything more and you feel like you've eaten a manhole cover.
If bacon is the most beautiful thing on earth, fruit is a vibrant gift from heaven, and certainly it's a staple for every Sunday brunch buffet. Fruit is delicious and beautiful. It's our precious palette cleanser. It's the gods kissing the wounds of gluttony, making it all better, making us feel like maybe we didn't eat all that stuff after all. It magically dials the calorie counter backwards just enough for us to make room for...well...more.
I don't normally do dessert, unless it's a chocolate chip cookie, or a brownie, or a piece of chocolate cake, or bananas foster, or little mini cheesecakes, or truffles, or those phyllo tarts filled with lemon curd, so I'm no expert. My feeling in the dessert department is this: It doesn't really matter what it is, just make sure you get enough of it.
So that's brunch. Now go home, stretch out on the couch, unzip those pants, and take a nap.