The Mother Sauce
Oh, brother. Do food service workers a favor and cook your own Mother’s Day Brunch.
By Leslie Bilderback 05/01/2010
Thank goodness it’s Mother’s Day, because I was almost out of macaroni picture frames, bean mosaics, handprint plaques and ballpoint-pen-plastic-flowers-growing-out-of-soup-can pots.
I cherish all that stuff, although it is currently being cherished in four 35-gallon Rubbermaid tubs stacked in the garage behind the camping gear.
Most holidays are associated with great home-cooked meals, like turkey on Thanksgiving, corned beef and cabbage on Saint Patrick’s Day or cake on your birthday. But on Mother’s Day, Americans gather at restaurants en masse to partake in the country’s favorite hybrid meal—brunch. (Why we haven’t similarly embraced linner or lupper is another mystery for the ages.) The American Mother’s Day Brunch has become a rite of passage for both families and food service professionals.
When I was a kid, Mother’s Day meant a trip to the now defunct Velvet Turtle in celebration of my grandmother. She was the oldest mother in the family, and therefore the universally beloved matriarch (on this one day at least). The Velvet Turtle was not a rock super-group made up of has-been musicians, but a bastion of pepper steak and lobster tails, where the middle class swarmed in the ’70s for “gourmet” food. (A term as dated as a Gunne Sax and Famolares.) When I was 10 years old, reservations were required at The Turtle, but in the mid-’80s the company was acquired in a hostile takeover by Marriott, America decided it preferred surf and turf with a bloomin’ onion and an Aussie accent and The Turtle went belly-up.
It’s a sad story, but sadder still is the abandoned Velvet Turtle on the edge of Chinatown in Los Angeles, wrapped in chain-link fencing, its parking lot cracked and sprouting mustard weeds. As if going out of business wasn’t bad enough, the sign is still hanging there as a constant reminder of failure.
But when I see that Turtle sign I think of Mother’s Day and my grandpa’s olive green ’72 Mercury Marquis sedan. He would float it up to The Turtle’s entrance and unload grandma in style. With gloves in hand and a corsage pinned to her shoulder, she entered the doors of The Velvet Turtle like Elizabeth Taylor entering Chasen’s. Keeping in mind that grandma and grandpa typically dined on grilled cheese and Campbell’s tomato soup on TV trays in front of The Lawrence Welk Show, it’s amazing how easily she fell into Liz mode. The Turtle staff could instantly sense her pseudo-supercilious vibe and were on their toes, making sure her water glass was full, her coffee piping hot and her steaks a perfect shade of overcooked gray. She was always a persnickety woman (to say the least), but on this one day every year, we all pretended not to mind.
On these occasions, my attention would be totally focused on the buffet. It was a thing of wonder and beauty to a 10-year-old—mountains of strawberries, piles of shrimp, as many muffins, bagels and French croissants as I could eat and a huge roast beef, carved by a real chef under a heat lamp. (Of course, now I realize that that guy wasn’t a real chef at all. Real chefs don’t carve under a heat lamp for eight hours in the middle of the day. We hire lackeys to do that.)
It was at a Mother’s Day Brunch that I discovered an amazing dish called Eggs Benedict. An English muffin (from England, Europe!) was topped with ham (which the Canadians call bacon…weird) and a pristine poached egg. Then everything was enveloped in a magical, mystical, tongue-coating sauce called Hollandaise. This sauce was so over-the-top decadent that grandma would give me a hard time for ordering it, as if I was somehow not worthy of its lusciousness (“You ordered what?”). The pièce de résistance was a thin slice of black olive perched on top. Served in pairs, the final presentation was a little mammo-rific, but my 10-year-old brain didn’t work that way yet. According to several turn-of-the-century cookbooks, the original garnish was shaved truffle and not strange olive nipples.
I would, at this point, like to take a minute and reprimand the first cook who tried to pass off canned black olives for truffles. You, sir, are an embarrassment to the profession. Next, I say “shame” to all the customers who ate the olive and didn’t notice or care that it wasn’t a truffle. If you had been on the ball, we’d all be hip deep in truffles today. Boo on you, dead, apathetic Eggs-Benedict-eaters of yore.
For restaurant people, Mother’s Day is a mixed blessing. If you are a skilled waiter, there is mega-tip potential. But for the rest of the staff, Mother’s Day Brunch is just a big pain in the butter. Most parties are big, which means bigger orders and split checks.
There are often rugrats, and the adults are getting drunk on free champagne, which unfortunately doesn’t increase the final bill. And more often than not there are persnickety grandmothers with persnickety tastes. It’s enough to send any well-meaning food service worker over the edge. (To this day, my recurring anxiety dream involves waiting tables at a Mother’s Day Brunch. In this dream, there is a table that I have forgotten about, and the customer turns out to be my high school algebra teacher, who reminds me that I am having a test after my shift, which I didn’t study for. Also, I am naked.)
These days, I can do without the entire scene. Mother’s Day ranks up there with Valentine’s Day on my list of superfluous Hallmark holidays. I am sure I will receive backlash from readers (what else is new?), but I think Mother’s Day is a crock. Don’t we give moms enough adulation as it is? I don’t know a single mom who is not firmly in charge of her minions, with total control of their schedule, the menu, the car keys, the checkbook and the power to affect the mood of a houseful of people with a single look. The world bends to a mother’s will on a daily basis. You need a celebration on top of all that?
And besides, the whole thing has the faint aroma of obligation. Don’t waste your allowance on designer hand lotion for me, kids. Just get your homework done on time, dress out for PE, empty your pockets before you toss your jeans in the hamper and give me a kiss when I ask. (I mean every time I ask…even in front of your friends. What? You don’t think their moms kiss them? You want to pretend I’m not your mother? Who am I then? Some middle-aged stranger who gave you a lift?)
Also, don’t roll your eyes when I make a joke. That would be the best Mother’s Day gift ever.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master chef and baker, a cookbook author and a former executive chef of Pasadena’s School of Culinary Arts. A South Pasadena resident, Bilderback teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.