In the days leading up to the Pfister’s famous Mother’s Day brunch this past Sunday, I began wondering why we brunch in the first place.
I knew that the word was a portmanteau of “breakfast” and “lunch.” And I remembered gorging (I mean, feasting) on scrumptious delights in Las Vegas–filling plates with eggs benedict, haricot verts, and cinnamon toasts, then refilling with perhaps a bowl of ramen. Or how about Korean beef? Or when did they bring the shrimp rice out? And that tower of petit fours and mille-feuille looks tempting. I know I’ve enjoyed the smaller, tamer menus at Milwaukee destinations on Brady Street or the lake–and once at the Pfister long ago to say goodbye to a friend who returned years later to create her own award-winning meals, including brunch, in Delafield. However, I still wondered why someone had reserved Sunday for bustling buffets and fancy formalities.
Was brunch special? Was it better? Did it have something to do with accommodating church goers? Was it simply a tradition–and if so, what was its origin? What was the history of this elusive (exclusively American?) eating phenomenon? Why did we fill and refill plates and plates of food at 10 in the morning?
To prepare, I headed to Wikipedia, which taught me that brunch emerged in England in the late 19th century, perhaps as an offshoot of the ubiquitous practice of eating a large mid-morning meal in Catholic households after a day of fasting. I also learned that its American popularity began in the 1930s when Hollywood stars traveling cross-country would stop in Chicago–presumably only between 10 am and 11 am–their stomachs demanding a hearty meal. Post-World War II Americans saw a drop in church attendance, a rise in the working female population, and the need for new social outlets besides the church hall after Mass. Most enlightening, however, was this excerpt from Guy Beringer’s 1895 essay “Brunch: A Plea,” which appeared in almost every article I read about this institution:
“Brunch is cheerful, sociable, and inciting. It’s 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.”
My goal this past Sunday, then, was to enter the Grand Ballroom, get the lay of the land, and engage as many mothers as possible in “cheerful, sociable, and inciting” conversation that would help them and me “[sweep] away the worries and cobwebs” of the first week of May. If talk of worries and spiders proved too personal, my alternative was to co-create with guests a Mother’s Day poem inspired by Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”
Guests were certainly “cheerful” and “sociable,” but not immediately “inciting” (until I met Mercedes, but more on her later!). After I introduced myself to several tables of brunchers and asked–in between their bites of grilled quail with couscous, dried cherries, and citrus, seafood stuffed sole with tarragon lobster sauce, and vanilla bean cheesecakes with mango glaze–if I could return in a quarter hour or so to see if they would be available for a short chat, I admit I was feeling a tad daunted. Not too many people seemed interested in speaking with me longer than a minute, and who could blame them? They were celebrating a special day in a beautiful place and were there with one mission: eat everything in the first row, then hit the omelet station, and end with dessert. Two missions, I mean: eat and celebrate mom.
While I waited to chat further with the guests, I found myself strolling the perimeter of the ballroom to peruse A. Telser’s seductive painting of an “Oriental Girl” with a diaphanous veil, Ferdinand Wagner’s colorful “Royal Love Feast,” L. Berton’s sandy “Arab Horsemen,” and H.W. Hansen’s Wild West “Wild Horses,” noting the sexy dynamism in these paintings that ringed the tables of guests enjoying private conversation with their partners or lively but politely quiet memories with extended family. I felt a little like Lucy Honeychurch in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, meandering the museum-like Santa Croce church, stopping, admiring, reading a placard–then moving on to the next exhibit with little feeling. As I moved from painting to painting, however, I was reassured that the ballroom is more than its walls and adornments: it’s about the people with whom one interacts. I met various members of the banquet service, including Muny (“Hi, Dominic! I recognize your voice! I like your suit, too!”), Preston (“My mother always told me to shake hands firmly and look her–and anyone else–in the eye.”), Matt (“I’m trying to bridge the gap between art and architecture as I figure out my future.”), Francesco (“I’ve been here so long that the Pfister should give me a post in front of the hotel like those guys at Buckingham Palace.”), and others.
In time, I did gather the beginnings of a shared poem and did snap a few photographs of potential mothers for my story. But the poem remains unfinished, the photographs beautiful but story-less . . . because at one point I crouched down to ask a striking older woman named Mercedes if I might talk to her and her family, and in no less than sixty seconds my jacket was off, I was holding a glass of champagne, and Mercedes was pointing across the table as she whispered, “She has some stories to tell you.” Indeed, her daughter Maria, had a lot to say.
For now, I leave you with my unfinished poem and a couple photos of my story-less mothers.
But stay tuned for “East Side Story,” the second installment in my Mother’s Day Brunch story, to read more about Mercedes and Maria and their New York family and what it means to truly “brunch” the Guy Beringer way: ““Brunch is cheerful, sociable, and inciting. It’s 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.”
Among twenty celebrating mothers,
The only moving things
Were your arms around me.
I was of two minds,
Like a ledger
In which there is a deficit but also a surplus.
The mother whirled in the thunderstorm.
It was a beautiful part of the danger.
I do not know which to prefer,
The luscious sundae of motherhood
Or the sprinkle on top,
The mother scooping up her joys with a spoon
Or just after.
When the mother chopped the mixed salad,
She chopped the leaves
Of one of many salads.
The journey is not prescribed.
The mother must be flying.