The Sunday Brunch

When it comes to upscale socialization and drinks before 5:00, brunch reigns supreme.

With Easter Sunday nearly upon us, what better time to highlight that WASP’iest of all meals: Brunch.  Aside from being one of America’s best loved portmanteaux, the mere mention of bunch is sure to conger up images of the classic WASP lifestyle.  Upscale social interaction, fancy restaurants, preppy attire, and of course, the hands-down best excuse to drink during the middle of the day.

That being said, brunch basics are a must-know for any serious student of WASP culture.  The good news is that learning to brunch (yes, it’s a noun and a verb) properly is one of the easiest lessons you’ll find on the how to WASP.  Really all that’s required is knowing when and where to show up, what to consume once you’re there, and then going out and experiencing it for yourself.  But first, a little history…

Brunch Beginnings:

Like most WASP’y, it should come as no surprise that the institution of bunch traces its origins back to Great Britain.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was first used by a man named Guy Baringer in an 1895 article he wrote for Hunter’s Weekly titled Brunch: A Plea.

The traditional English Sunday dinner doesn't exactly qualify as "light" fare.

Prior to Mr. Beringer’s plea, the typical English Sunday consisted of an early breakfast and morning church service followed by a formal Sunday dinner.  Now, it’s important to note that in those days, dinner didn’t mean the same thing that it does today today.  Rather than being the third and largest meal of the day served in the evening, dinner was more akin to a substantial late lunch, served around mid-afternoon.  It was largest meal of the day and typically followed by a smaller evening meal called supper.  The English Sunday dinner in particular was often an especially heavy meal consisting of substantial meat dishes and other savory offerings.

If that sounds a bit daunting, you’re not alone.  Guy Beringer thought exactly the same thing and in Brunch: A Plea he proposed an alternative:

Instead of England’s early Sunday dinner, a postchurch ordeal of heavy meats and savory pies, why not a new meal, served around noon, that starts with tea or coffee, marmalade and other breakfast fixtures before moving along to the heavier fare? By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday-night carousers. It would promote human happiness in other ways as well. Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting. It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.

Remarkably, this more than a century old proposal almost exactly describes brunch as it exists today.  Essentially a lighter mid-day meal that serves both as an informal social occasion and a reprieve from having to get up too early after a little weekend excess.

Over the course of the 20th Century brunch steadily caught on United States.  It also developed its close association with WASP culture as the meal became a favorite post-church social activity among the upper class establishment.  The golden age of brunch probably occurred around mid-century when each Sunday millions of Episcopalians across the country would head out from church on a weekly trek to the nearest restaurant to eat, drink, and socialize with friends.

While church attendance gradually declined in the decades following World War II, the institution of Sunday brunch stuck around.  Partly out of respect for social tradition, partly out of the appeal of not having to get up too early, and partly out of the aforementioned excuse to drink before five o’clock, brunch thankfully still remains relevant today.

A Quick Guide to Brunching Like a WASP:

As mentioned earlier, there’s really not too much involved when it comes to brunch, but there are couple pointers for first timers looking to do it right.  Remember that brunch is by nature informal and fun, so please consider the following general guidelines rather than absolute rules.

What Day? – Brunch was traditionally served on Sunday and that remains the case today.  Technically you could have brunch any day of the week, but you’ll find most restaurants offering a specialized brunch menu will only offer it on Sunday.

Today most Americans only go to brunch as couple times a year, usually for special occasions like Mothers Day, Valentines Day, or Easter.  However, there’s really no need to limit yourself.  I would encourage you to have brunch as often as you like, every week if possible!

What Time? – Every restaurant is different, but usually you’ll find brunch being offered from 10:30 AM to 2:00 PM.  Sometimes it may begin a little sooner, or end a little later.  In general if you plan on showing up sometime during the late morning you should be OK.

Where to Go? – To do brunch right, you’ll want to find a nicer, fairly upscale, restaurant.  Preferably one that offers a dedicated brunch menu, or at the very least offers both breakfast and lunch options.  This doesn’t necessarily mean the most expensive place in town, just someplace nice.  Could you simply catch a late breakfast at Denny’s?  Sure, just keep in mind you’ll be straying a bit from the WASP ideal.

The good news is that since brunch is not a formal meal, most restaurants that might normally be out of your price range for dinner typically offer much more reasonable prices for daytime fare.  Some places will even have special deals just for brunch.  A little research can really pay off.

The general sort of upscale/casual atmosphere you're looking for when scouting a brunch locale.

What to Wear? – Back in the old days it was easy, you simply dressed in whatever you wore to  church.  Today however, the key is balance.  On the one hand brunch is supposed to be a somewhat casual occasion.  On the other it’s still a traditional social event taking place in a nice setting.    If you do decide to dress up, you won’t look out of place, but in general you can get away with a sort of preppy/casual style.  If you’re having trouble deciding between outfits, always err on the side of a little too formal.

You'll never go wrong with Eggs Benedict!

What to Eat? – One of the great things about brunch is the shear selection of choices available.  Because you’re in between breakfast and lunch, it’s appropriate to order either.  Eggs, Bacon, Waffles, Pancakes, Salads, Sandwiches… sky’s the limit.  Brunch is the one meal where everyone at the table can get just about anything they like, all served at the same time.

Personally I favor the breakfast side of the menu.  In fact my go-to selection is Eggs Benedict, which I consider to be brunch royalty.  You get a little bit of everything on a single plate.  The eggs, sausage, and English muffin suggest a casual breakfast while the hollandaise sauce brings a touch of rich decadence to the party.  If you can’t decide on what to get, you’ll never go wrong with Eggs Benedict.

What to Drink? – Brunch offers one of the few socially acceptable excuses to drink in the middle of the day, so you should definitely take advantage!  The only catch is that you’ll want to stick to a few pre-approved choices to avoid standing out.  Translation:  Save the beer and martinis for happy hour.

Basically there are two options: The Bloody Mary and the Mimosa.  Fortunately what you lose in quantity, you more than make up for in quality as both are excellent options and perfectly suited to brunch dining.  For those who many not be familiar with one or the other:

    • Bloody Mary: A savory tomato juice and vodka based cocktail with spicy kick.  It’s a heavy duty drink that can go with just about anything and is a true WASP classic.  Find out more here!
    • Mimosa: A sweeter cocktail of orange juice and Champagne, mixed in a ratio of 1/3 juice to 2/3 wine.  Technically if it’s not Champagne (with a capital C), it’s not a Mimosa, but these days any sparkling wine has become an acceptable, and far more common, alternative.  Mimosas are best enjoyed with egg and mushroom based dishes.
Your brunch cocktail options: Mimosas (left) or a Bloody Mary (right). You really can't go wrong with either.

That’s really all there is to it.  Stick to the guidelines above and you’ll be out brunching like a pro in no time!

Next Steps:

  • Again, this one’s easy, just grab a few friends this (or any) Sunday and have brunch!  Even better, set up a standing weekly brunch and turn it into a new tradition.
  • While Easter brunch is a great tradition, and one I encourage you to try, there’s something to be said for the “off” weekends as well.  By off weekend I mean any Sunday that’s not Mothers Day, Valentines Day, or Easter.  The crowds will be much thinner and the atmosphere more casual and conducive to socialization.
  • Put together a brunch appropriate wardrobe.  While looking sharp for brunch is an obvious benefit, having a go-to preppy-casual outfit can serve you well in a host of other situations.  In fact I’d call the preppy/casual look one of the most versatile dress options today.  Not sure where to start?  You can’t go wrong at Brooks Brothers.
  • Bon Appetite and Happy Easter!
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The Single-Malt Scotch

Few things scream WASP like a glass of good single-malt scotch.

In the pantheon of WASP culture, few treasures are as coveted and revered as a bottle of good Single Malt Scotch Whiskey.   Scotch has always enjoyed a certain amount of mystique.  It’s the drink that everyone knows, few dare to try, and fewer still know anything about.  It’s also possibly the strongest (both literally and figuratively) “statement” drink out there today, in that scotch has the ability to project that WASP’y image like no other.  Don’t believe me?  Order a glass of next time you’re out to dinner with friends and see what happens for yourself.

But wait, not so fast!  There are a few things you should know before hitting the bar.  Like most things WASP’y, scotch can be a somewhat complicated and confusing subject.  It’s also important to concede right off the bat that scotch does has a few things going against it.

First, scotch is definitely an acquired taste.  This is probably the single largest barrier for the average scotch virgin.  They get a glass, smell it, have a sip, grimace, and immediately go back to their boring old vodka cocktail.  However, I believe the common mistake most first timers (myself included) make is that they try cheap scotch.  This makes sense as the vast majority of scotch out there is the cheap, comes in a plastic bottle, variety.  Bluntly put, it tastes like crap.  When you’re ready to give scotch a serious try, spend a little extra money, you’ll be glad you did.  Even good quality scotch  is still an acquired taste, but you’ll find it’s much easier to acquire than the cheap stuff.  Which brings us to the second issue…

This bottle of Macallan 60 year old scotch costs as much as a midsize family sedan.

It’s expensive – or rather, it can be expensive.  In reality scotch prices run the gamut from less than $10 to more than $10,000 a bottle and, like most things in life, you get what you pay for.   In other words, you’ll want to avoid the really cheap stuff.  A typical “good” bottle of Scotch will usually range anywhere from $30 – $100 depending on the age and producer.  While that’s not inexpensive, it’s not outrageous either considering the amount of time and effort that went into creating it and that contents won’t go bad after opening (like wine).  What makes a good scotch? Well, keep reading and find out!

A Primer on Scotch Whiskey:

No one knows for sure when the Scots first started making whiskey, but it is known that the ancient Celts produced distilled spirits, which eventually evolved into the scotch whiskey we know today.  The first recorded example of distillation in Scotland is attributed to Christian monks during the 11th Century A.D.  However, scotch whiskey didn’t hit the big time until the 19th Century.  It was then that reductions in whiskey taxes, the advent of new distillation technology, and the outbreak of the phylloxera epidemic (which destroyed European wine production)  combined to push scotch to the forefront of the British drinking scene.  It’s remained a favorite and a classic ever since.

Many modern day distilleries have been operating since the 19th Century.

Scotch whiskey is essentially like every other whiskey in the world, in that it’s a spirit distilled from cereal grains, and subsequently mellowed through aging in wood casks.  What makes scotch unique is the type of grain used (barley), the manufacturing process, and of course the fact that it can only be made only in Scotland.

Today scotch falls into one of two major categories:  Blended and Single Malt.

Blended Scotch Whiskey: The vast majority (more than 90%) of scotch available in the US today falls into this category.  Essentially blended scotch is exactly what it sounds like, a product that’s created by blending various other whiskeys (sometimes as many as 50 or more) together.  The idea is to create a softer style of whiskey that appeals to a wide audience.  Similar to the great Champagne houses of France, each blended scotch producer of  has a certain “house style” that they’re known for.

One of the primary differences between a single malt scotch and a blended scotch in terms of quality (and cost) is that in addition to pure malt whiskey, the latter may incorporate cheaper grain whiskey (mass produced from corn) into the blend.  In fact the typical ratio for blended scotch consists of 60% grain to only 40% malt.   The higher the proportion of malt whiskey in the blend, the higher quality (and more expensive) a given scotch will be.

Johnnie Walker is one of the most famous brands of blended scotch. The Black Label version is aged 12 years and comparable to a quality single malt.

Another determination of quality is the age of the blend.  Normally most whiskeys used in the blend are aged about 5 years.   However, some higher quality blended scotches will use whiskeys that have been aged longer, sometimes much longer.  For example, if you see a bottle of blended scotch labeled as 12 year, that tells you that every whiskey in the blend (both grain and malt) has been aged for at least 12 years.

One common misconception when it comes to blended Scotch is that they’re inferior to single malts.  While that’s often true, remember that a high quality blended scotch can actually be much better than a cheap single malt.

Single Malt Scotch Whiskey:  Now we’re getting into the real WASP territory.  No other drink conjures images of the WASP lifestyle like a glass of fine single malt scotch.  But what’s all the fuss about?  Well, lets find out!

As we just learned, blended scotch typically only contains about 40% actual malt whiskey, with the remainder of the blend being cheaper, mass produced grain whiskey.  Single malt scotch on the other hand is 100% malt whiskey.  In fact to be considered a single malt, a scotch must be:

    • The product of a single distillery
    • Made exclusively from barely malt
    • Made in Scotland

The actual process of making malt whiskey is both expensive and labor intensive.  It begins with the grain (in this case specially selected barely), which is subsequently malted.  Malting means that the barely has been soaked in water to the point of germination, or when it’s just beginning to  sprout.

The malted barely is then dried in kilns fired by peat and coal.  The use of peat during the drying process is one of the unique aspects of Scotch whiskey and it imparts a distinctive smokey flavor and aroma to the finished product.  Next, the dried malted barely is mixed into warm water to create a mash and yeast is added to begin the fermentation process.

Peat is harvested from bogs and was traditionally used as a source of fuel. Today it’s burned in kilns to dry out the malted barley, which helps give scotch whiskey its unique flavor.

After fermentation is complete, the mash is distilled and finally pumped into wooden casks for aging.   After 3 years, you’ve got yourself a single malt scotch whiskey.  In the end each batch of whiskey is a unique product of its maker and environment, with a distinct style all its own.  No two distilleries will ever produce the same single malt and that’s part of the mystique and allure of the spirit.   

Like their blended cousins, higher quality single malts are often aged longer than the 3 year required by law.  As the whiskey ages in the barrel, its tastes and aromas evolve.  The whiskey also becomes more mellow and smoother with time.  Usually you’ll see scotch sold as 10, 12, 16, or 18 year old, with the price increasing accordingly.  It’s also possible to find even older examples such as 20, 30, or even 60 year old single malt, although they’ll cost as much as a car payment, or sometimes even the entire car!

Enjoying a Nip:

OK, now that you know what makes a single malt scotch special, it’s time to head out and try some for yourself.  Once you’re at the liquor store, you’ll probably be bombarded with a number of options.  As we learned, each distillery makes its own unique style of scotch and unless you’re familiar with that brand, you’ll never know exactly what to expect.  There are however some general geographic guidelines that can help.  scotch production is divided into three major areas, with each focusing on a general style of whiskey.  They are:

    • The Highlands:  Basically all of northern Scotland, this is the largest production region.  Most of the distilleries are located in a sub-region called Speyside (for its proximity to the Spey river).  General characteristics of highland single malts are rich flavors, smokiness, and a touch of sweetness.  Think of them as medium body whiskeys.
    • The Lowlands:  Mainly known for the grain whiskey distilleries used in blended scotch, but there are a few single malt distilleries here as well.  They’re known for a much lighter style scotch, both in terms of flavor and color.  They sometimes have a sweet scent and fruity characteristics.  Think of them as light bodied whiskeys.
    • Islay: The smallest of all Scotch regions, Islay is an island off the western coast of Scotland.  It’s known for its heavily, full bodied style whiskeys.  They often have an intense peaty flavor and seaweed or brine-like aromas.
Map of Scotland showing the three primary whiskey regions.

Once you’ve decided on a style and got a bottle picked out, it’s time to drink.  This may seem like the easy part, but be warned that some people take their scotch very seriously and drinking it the wrong way can be a major faux pas.

In this case the “wrong” way refers not to the physical act of drinking, but rather to how the drink is prepared.   When it comes to scotch, there are really only a few acceptable preparations:

    • With a cocktail mixer – Such as cola
    • With Water – Still or Soda, as preferred
    • On the Rocks – Served over ice
    • Neat – Nothing but the Scotch, served at room temperature

The general rule is that the better (more expensive) the scotch, the less acceptable it is to alter the flavor with additional ingredients.  So, for example, while it’s perfectly OK to add a splash of Coke to a cheap blended scotch, you might get punched in the face for doing the same to a fine 30 year old single malt.  For some, the only acceptable preparation for really good scotch is neat, but you can generally get away with “on the rocks” in most situations.  Save the water and other mixers for blended whiskeys.

Neat typically means at room temp. But for those who want a little chill without diluting their whiskey, scotch rocks are available. Cool them in your freezer and use in place of ice.

Some people take their tasting very seriously, but for the beginner there are just a few characteristics you should be looking for.  First is whether there are any obvious fruity or citrus characteristics which are products of the malted barely.  A lot of the flavor will come from the barrel aging, which can contribute flavors such as vanilla, coffee, toffee, spice, or caramel.  There will also probably be a peaty or smokey flavor from the kiln drying process.  Finally, some aged scotches can take on tropical flavors such as coconut or banana.

Armed with the above knowledge you’ve got everything you need to buy, drink, and hopefully appreciate scotch like a pro.  And to that last point, one final word of warning; Scotch is definitely NOT something you want drink to get drunk.  Don’t be mistaken, it’ll do the job and then some, but you’ll likely experience one of the worst hangovers of your life.  Just remember that Scotch, like all things WASP’y, is best when kept classy.  Enjoy!

Next Steps:

  • Head out and try some scotch for yourself.  Be sure to spend a little extra and buy something worth trying, or you’ll surely be disappointed.  A 12 year old single malt from a major distiller (Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Macallen) is a good compromise between quality and price.
  • Remember that scotch is an acquired taste that might take some getting used to.  One way to ease yourself into it is by mixing in some water to dilute the taste.  If you’re drinking a single malt, pour it over the rocks.  For blended whiskey, I enjoy a splash of soda water thrown in as well.
  • You may think of scotch as the quintessential man’s drink, and it is (Remember it was Bill Brasky’s spirit of choice)!  However, most men will admit there’s something undeniably appealing about a girl who can appreciate a glass of good single malt.  For ladies, knowing the basics of scotch can help make a powerful and lasting impression among the right company.

The Bloody Mary

When it comes to drinking like a WASP, one cocktail stands high among the fray: The Bloody Mary.

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The Bloody Mary: WASP cocktail royalty and hangover cure extraordinaire.

The reason is simple.  Opinions regarding the best apéritif, wine, or liquor are diverse and the subject of constant debate.   But when it comes to drinking in the mid-to-late morning, particularly after a vigorous “debate” the evening prior, everyone agrees that the Bloody Mary is the only choice.

For such a ubiquitous drink, the history of the Bloody Mary is actually quite muddled.  There are several versions of when and how the cocktail came to be, but the most wildly accepted seems to credit a bartender by the name of Fernand Petiot, who was working at Harry’s New York Bar (naturally located in Paris, France) in the early 1920’s.  That’s where Petiot claims to have first mixed a basic version of the drink for the American expats who frequented the bar.  He immigrated to the United States in 1925 and by 1934 became the head bartender at the St. Regis Hotel in New York.  It was at the St. Regis where Petiot says he augmented his recipe with a defining touch of Tabasco sauce, thus creating the modern version of the Bloody Mary we all know and love today.

So there we have the origins of the cocktail itself, but what about that name?  If we stay true to Fernand, then we’re told that the name was coined by two men from Chicago for whom he first mixed the drink.  The men knew a bar in Chicago called Bucket of Blood and a waitress there everyone called Bloody Mary.  They told Petiot that his drink reminded them of Bloody Mary and the rest is history.  Another popular belief is that the cocktail is named in honor of Queen Mary I.  Mary earned the nickname “Bloody Mary” during her occasionally violent quest to return England to the Catholicism, which she felt that her father, Henry VIII, had wrongly rejected after the Pope’s refusal to allow his divorce her mother Catherine of Aragon.

I’m not sure which story is right, but I think I prefer the latter because of the more literal relation to the drink’s appearance and also the connection to English history, which naturally adds an enormous amount of WASP cred.

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The King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. This is the spot where Fernand Petiot claims to have perfected the modern Bloody Mary.

OK, by now you must be thinking, enough with history lessons, it’s time to drink!  And you’re in luck because in addition to being one of the WASP’iest cocktails out there, the Bloody Mary is also one of the easiest to make.   No strange ingredients, expensive liquors, or fancy bar equipment required.

According to the International Bartender Association, a traditional Bloody Mary consists of the following:

  • 4.5 cl (or 3 parts) Vodka
  • 9.0 cl (or 6 parts) Tomato sauce
  • 1.5 cl (or 1 part) Lemon juice

Add dashes of Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, salt and pepper into a highball glass, then pour all ingredients into highball with ice cubes. Stir gently. Garnish with Celery Salt and lemon wedge (optional).

Now, that will certainly get the job done.  But one of the best parts about making Bloody Marys is that the recipe is highly amenable to personalization and experimentation.  In fact I’ve found that most WASP’y types prefer something a little above and beyond the standard interpretation.

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Brunch: A fixture of WASP lifestyle and native environment of the Bloody Mary.

A few years ago I was put in charge of making Bloody Marys for a family brunch during the holidays. Being a Bloody Mary virgin, I stuck to the traditional recipe and erred on the side of caution when it came to the more aggressive elements of the cocktail in the interests of not offending anyone.

The result?  People took one sip, looked upon the drink with disappointment, and immediately began dumping in copious amounts of pepper, worchestershire, tobasco, and alcohol to correct my rookie mistake.  It was an eye opening and humiliating setback in my own quest to master the WASP lifestyle and one that I vowed never to repeat.

This past Christmas I had an opportunity to redeem myself and this time I was determined to succeed.  As a result, I put together what I believe to be the perfect WASP Bloody Mary.  The recipe is provided below and should be made by the pitcher (why would you want less?).  Quantities are left purposefully vague and should be adjusted to one’s taste.

Ingredients:

  • Tomato Juice
  • Vodka – No need to go crazy and use a bottle of Grey Goose here.  A Bloody Mary is not the appropriate vehicle for showcasing a top shelf vodka.  Instead get the smoothest vodka you can find for the lowest price.  Personally I think Smirnoff No. 21 is the best compromise.
  • Horseradish Sauce – You can use straight prepared horseradish, but I find the sauce blends into the juice better and yields for a more uniform final product.
  • Worcestershire Sauce
  • Tabasco Sauce – Or any Louisiana style hot sauce.
  • Salt and Pepper
  • Celery Stalk – Leave the leafs intact on top for a better presentation.

Process:

  • Step  1:  Drop 1-2 spoonfuls of horseradish sauce into an empty pitcher and add about a cup of tomato juice.  Stir or whisk till the horseradish is smoothly blended into the juice.
  • Step 2:  Add tomato juice to the mixture until the pitcher is roughly half full.
  • Step 3: Add a couple hearty splashes of Worcestershire and Tabasco  sauces and stir into the tomato juice using a full celery stalk.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  • Step 4:  Slowly pour in Vodka while stirring the mixture until the pitcher is full.
  • Step 5:  Taste and add more Tabasco and/or seasoning as desired.  What you’re going for here is a proper balance of spicy and savory.  You’ll know that you have it right when the taste of your mix comes in three distinct phases.  First you should be hit with the smooth, warming sensation of the alcohol.  That should be followed by a smoky/savory tomato flavor.  And the drink should finish with a pleasant hint of heat from the Tabasco that lingers in the mouth until the next sip.  CAUTION:  Be judicious as you add Tabasco as it’s the one ingredient that can quickly cross the line and make your drink unpalatable.   Remember that it’s a lot easier to add a little more than to take some out…
  • Step 6:  Once you have the taste and balance perfected, give it one last stir and pour into individual glasses over ice.

Viola!  And there you have it, the perfect WASP Bloody Mary. Feel free to garnish as you like, again, it’s all about personal taste. From there all that’s left is to enjoy!   Fernand Petiot, eat your heart out…

Next Steps:

  • Alcohol, you’ll need alcohol…
  • Head to the grocery store, buy the rest of the ingredients, and start experimenting for yourself.
  • Invite some friends over for brunch next weekend so you’re not stuck drinking a full pitcher by yourself.