The Viennese Brunch Bunch

While walking down a main street in Vienna at 11:15 AM this fine Saturday morning, I was struck by the crowd in the Josef Brot bakery. This is one of four artisan bakers left in city that once had an artisan bakery on every block! I wasn’t buying the $8, 1lb. loaf of handmade, organic bread, but I went inside anyway to see what they were offering. That’s when I notice a large, full dining room to the side of the bakery counter and a line of people waiting for tables.

BRUNCH! I wrote an article about Viennese mealtimes back in 1981 and brunch was not one of those mealtimes then. I wasn’t so much surprised to see people eating a meal at 11:00 AM on a Saturday as I was drawn to the sheer size of the crowd, and the number of people at the tables. It was Brooklyn-esque in it’s magnitude.

 

 

Just the previous day, I had the pleasure to read Adam Yuet Chau’s article on menues, Culinary Subjectification: The translated world of menus and orders. The premise of the article is intriguing: “How would one translate the word “menu” (i.e., restaurant menu) into the native languages of people without any experience of restaurants and menus? And how would you explain to them how ordering from the menu works? It quickly became clear that translating the word “menu” entails not only translating the world of restaurant-going and ordering from the menu but also our (i.e., ideal-typically Western) very conceptual and social world, which is another way to say that what seems to be a humble piece of paper listing a certain number of dishes is itself made by the world in which it is found and in turn contributes in a significant way to making that world.”

His conclusion is that a menu is a world defining artifact, a cosmo-menu that is “[m]ore than merely a piece of paper (or cardboard), the menu is at once a parole
(though the broader menu universe carries langue qualities), a cultural logic (or
menu-logic?), a sociocognitive tool, a generative and structuring principle, a narrative,
an organizational device (conceptual, taxonomic, as well as social), a civilizing machine, a conduit of (culinary) governmentality, an ideological vehicle (e.g.,
about choice, freedom, taste, culturedness, civility, cosmopolitanism, social class,
etc.), an ideological state apparatus in the Althusserian sense, a textographic fetish
or text act, and so on.” He explains all of these terms in the article for readers who are not cultural anthropologists. Suffice to say, you can read a lot of how people construct their realities from a restaurant menu!

A glance at the menu reveals both Viennese and international items. The first two items on the left are traditional Viennese coffeehouse breakfasts: Several pieces of bread and rolls with marmalade and butter and a soft-boiled egg.  The second adds some fresh white cheese and slices of ham to the plate with the bread and egg. The rest of the menu items are in English and should be familiar to anyone reading this blog. That is its parole, the way it speaks to us in a language we can understand. There is a logic to the arrangements of items, with breakfast items on the left and above the bold line, and more lunch-y items below. The bold line (a textographic fetish?) signals the menu’s iconographic power to ground memories and enact narratives (of breakfasts and lunches). The menu is ideological in that it permits us the freedom to choose from among the items the kitchen can produce. It then demands that we do so (or leave).  The items include both locally indexed dishes and cosmopolitan ones. The menu enacts class distinction by taking a coffeehouse standard and adding locavore adjectives, appealing to educated, aspirational customers.   All the civility of eating out is present: children locked into high chairs, multigenerational parties, public eating decorum (no throwing food, putting feet on table, public drunkenness, etc.).

What struck me as particularly important here was the menu as sociocognitive tool: The people who ordered from this menu, after having stood in line for the privilege of doing so, knew themselves to be people who would order from such a menu. Their identity as Viennese (there were no tourists here) was bound up with this act in ways that were not apparent to me before, having studied Viennese eating patterns since the mid-1970s. This was a new, desirable way of eating in public made possible by the menu. This is a new and a desirable way of being Viennese (the “Brunch Bunch’). Thank you for these tools, Adam Chau!

 

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