Food Geek: Brunch Theory

Photo Credit: jfaherty17

A friend of mine recently linked to an excellent article on Slate: “Food like crack? Why the cocaine metaphor is classist and insulting.” The link came with a reminder of the “Humboldt Crack” debacle of a couple winters ago, when the owner of a bakery called Tipsy Cake made some light-hearted comments about gun violence in the neighborhood, and shared amusing anecdotes about police officers loving her “crack cakes.”

Xavier Luis Burgos covered the story for Gozamos, unpacking the implications of the offhand comments, calling out the racist and classist undertones from “urban pioneers” who act as agents of gentrification. My old neighbors and friends there still regularly complain about the representation of their neighborhood. The borders of HumboldtPark seem to constantly shift: if a realtor is advertising an apartment or building, North or California Avenues suddenly become “South Logan Square” or “West Bucktown.” If there are crime, gangs or drugs involved, HumboldtPark’s borders suddenly stretch all the way to Milwaukee or Damen.

Shifting demographics, shifting geographies: it all comes down to gentrification.

My personal litmus test for gentrification used to be eyeglasses boutiques. If a neighborhood has a store entirely dedicated to designer eyewear–or, God forbid, more than one competing for business–it’s gentrified. After living in Chicago, I’ve realized that fancy eyewear–along with doggie daycares, fancy taco places owned and operated by white people and Montessori preschools–are actually advanced yuppie hallmarks. These are the neighborhoods that have officially arrived. Gentrification process: complete. But what are the earlier signs of gentrification? The friends that I talked to about this had a variety of great answers: dogs, baby carriages, art spaces. Personally? I think it’s brunch.

Chicago’s draconian food truck laws mean that it’s hard to be a successful restaurateur without a storefront, which necessitates more startup cash. One way to cut back on the startup costs of a restaurant? Have it in a neighborhood with low rents. Such as Logan Square circa a few years ago, back when places like Revolution Brewing, Longman and Eagle, and Lula Cafe were opening. I call it the Brunch Theory.

Brunch places with waiters who wear flannel shirts are my new litmus test for gentrification. Brunch has evolved from the formal family events of my childhood–uncomfortable church shoes and spotless linen tablecloths required–to an extension of debauched weekends. Bacon (or vegetarian facsimiles), coffee and mimosas/bloody marys/brass monkeys are all necessities. Showing up still drunk from the night before is acceptable.

Then again, people have to be willing to actually step foot into a neighborhood for the food. Tipsy Cake opened another storefront in Bucktown, deciding that Damen Ave was far closer to the demographic they were trying to sell to. But other places have been popping up on that same strip of California Ave: Rootstock, a wine bar, for example, and Bullhead Cantina for another. Would either of them do so well in West Humboldt Park, where Google searches bring up phrases like “gang-ridden” and “high-crime” and the ubiquitous “open-air drug market”?

Which brings us back to Tipsy Cake’s clueless owner and the advanced pioneers of gentrification, and foodies who think it’s edgy or fun to call food crack. (Spoiler: IT’S NOT.)

There’s a lot of obliviousness when it comes to food culture. It’s a movement with too many white and upper-middle class people in for it to be anything else, two groups that tend to miss the forest for the cake pops, as it were. As L. V. Anderson wrote in the Slate article linked above, “The social and economic chasm between the kind of people who buy $10 sundaes at Ample Hills Creamery and the kind of people who buy $10 crack rocks is impossible to ignore.”

I won’t advocate for abolishing brunch–like hell, I love mimosas as much as next person–or say that fancy restaurants should stay downtown. But I’m always going to advocate for people to have more than a shred of sensitivity when they open their mouths. Don’t shit where you eat, folks. Or cook, bake, whatever.