Food & Drink

Mother’s Day and brunch, history and tradition

Photo illustration for Feast’s Mother’s Day brunch package.
Photo illustration for Feast’s Mother’s Day brunch package. lsterling@sacbee.com

The restaurant brunch stands, with the tulip bouquet and Talbots gift card, as a pillar of Mother’s Day.

As customs go, it’s a young one. Both Mother’s Day (established 1914) and brunch ( 1895, roughly) are not much more than a century old.

But to put things in perspective, the United States is still a young country, and its acknowledgment of women’s right to vote, in 1920, is even younger than Mother’s Day. The time it has taken, in U.S. history, for a woman (Hillary Clinton) to become front runner for a presidential nomination equates roughly to the time it takes out of a Sunday to wait for a brunch table at Sacramento’s Bacon & Butter.

Clinton, a mother and grandmother, likely will be attending her umpteenth Kiwanis Club pancake breakfast on the campaign trail on Mother’s Day (May 8).

But we mention her in conjunction with the Mother’s Day restaurant brunch because that brunch, like her, is inextricable from the topic of women’s rights in America.

President Woodrow Wilson’s designation of the second Sunday of each May as Mother’s Day culminated West Virginian Anna Jarvis’ longtime campaign to establish such a day, partly on behalf of her own mother. Jarvis’ mother had established “mothers’ day work clubs” before the Civil War to encourage better sanitary conditions in Appalachia. During the war, these clubs had helped feed, and tend the injuries of, soldiers from both sides.

By the 1920s, Jarvis had become disenchanted by how commercial the holiday had become (florists got in on the action not long after the Mother’s Day’s birth). She later tried to have it abolished, because it had strayed so far from her original intent.

So it’s unlikely Jarvis would approve of that mother who orders a second mimosa while celebrating Mother’s Day at a fancy restaurant. But she doesn’t know your life.

Plus, brunch itself is loosely tied to the progress of the American woman, in all its fits and starts.

Brunch has a “very gendered history,” said Farha Ternikar, author of the 2014 book “Brunch: A History.” In her book, Ternikar, an associate professor of sociology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., explores the cultural roots of the breakfast/lunch hybrid along with the origins of brunch staples such as eggs Benedict and French toast.

The idea on which the Mother’s Day restaurant meal rests – giving Mom, traditional preparer of holiday meals, a break from the kitchen for this one holiday – is a throwback, certainly. But it’s also in keeping with historical media reports about brunch, which Ternikar assiduously cites in her book, that portray it as a positive for women. These reports presented brunch as a way to “minimize women’s work,” Ternikar said, by cutting the day’s number of meals from three to two.

Ternikar tracks the first mention of the word “brunch” to an 1895 British hunting magazine article recommending a hearty meal to be enjoyed post-hunt rather than before dawn’s crack. In the United States, a mid-morning meal of egg dishes and pastries gained traction with the upper class during Prohibition, Ternikar found. These leisurely paced meals highlighted cocktails – or more specifically, illegal bathtub hooch mixed with enough fruit juice to render it palatable.

The middle class did not embrace the brunch concept until the 1930s, Ternikar said, when newspaper editorial content and advertisements promoted the meal to women as not just a time-saver but a potential face-saver for the unsure cook, since egg casseroles were hard to mess up.

As more women entered the workforce, the weekend brunch became a way for working mothers to continue to be domestic while (ostensibly) expending less energy. By 1969, when the indefatigably frisky Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown published her “Single Girl’s Cookbook,” women who lived alone were included in the brunch conversation as well. It was the perfect meal, Brown argued, to share with neighbors or one’s unanticipated (wink) overnight guest.

But like 1930s newspaper columnists before her who had extolled the ease of brunch-making, Brown considered preparing part of the meal on Saturday as saving time. This notion of spending parts of two weekend days on a single meal is enough to send today’s more casual cooks straight to opentable.com. Some women in the ’50s and ’60s already were doing the equivalent, though it then involved rotary phones.

The restaurant brunch grew as a concept during the mid-20th century because female office workers who weren’t combining two Sunday meals into one at home were going out, together, on that day. “Brunch was for working women,” Ternikar said. “We continue to see that.”

The HBO show “Sex and the City,” most episodes of which convened its female friend foursome for mimosas and bawdy talk, furthered the idea of the weekend brunch as the career woman’s special time to unwind. But by the time “Sex” debuted in 1998, brunch already was ingrained in American minds as a luxurious way to spend a holiday Sunday – or any Sunday. It had sparked in the 1980s, Ternikar said.

“Brunch didn’t become popular until the decade of excess and hotel buffets,” Ternikar said. As “the meal where you could drink in the middle of the day,” Ternikar said, the restaurant brunch symbolized the decade’s “conspicuous consumption.”

It followed that holidays that fall on Sunday – Easter, and Mother’s and Father’s Day – would inspire special brunches. But “Mother’s Day is the big one,” said Kim Scott, chef/owner of Mama Kim Eats, the new-American and Southern-food restaurant on Del Paso Boulevard in Sacramento. Mama Kim’s is offering a three-course, $30 special menu on Mother’s Day. Scott does something similar each Father’s Day as well, but draws only about half the crowd.

Scott, though the “mama” in charge of Mama Kim’s, does not have children. But she tailored next Sunday’s menu, which includes a free mimosa for the mothers, based on what women who come into her restaurant like.

“I have things that I know are favorites, like the king crab Benedict and wild mushroom frittata with asparagus,” Scott said. The menu also includes a petit filet, and probably will be beefier for Father’s Day.

(For that mother who wants meat and plenty of it on her special day, Putah Creek Cafe in Winters is offering an enormous smoked brisket Benedict special.)

Regardless of what’s on menus, Paulette Bruce, a Sacramento public relations consultant and cooking instructor, said she prefers to stay out of restaurants on Mother’s Day. “It’s like Valentine’s Day – restaurants can be overbooked,” she said.

Her sons, whom Bruce taught to cook, make a Mother’s Day meal for her and their wives every Mother’s Day. But she said food isn’t required for her on that day. Her favorite Mother’s Day, she said, happened when her contractor son was renovating her house, and Bruce and all three of her adult sons visited a home-improvement store together.

Wait. The home-improvement store is strictly Father’s Day territory, right? Or at least according to ads that link power drills as closely to Father’s Day as others do mimosas to Mother’s Day. Real life apparently doesn’t always jibe with archetypes.

And although the Mother’s Day restaurant brunch was not a particularly progressive idea when it started, Ternikar said, because it “reinforced the idea that Mom cooked all day,” it’s now “an institution.”

And it might grow in popularity in the coming years, said Scott, who observed that “millennials don’t seem to be big (on cooking).”

These youngsters might or might not be attached to a certain wave of feminism, or might prefer Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump or Ted Cruz to Clinton. But if they’re not cooking Mother’s Day brunch themselves, they share an obligation to take their mothers out.

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