Among things that would have shocked my wonderful mother, Beatrice, is the fact that Mother’s Day is the busiest day of the year for restaurants.
She would have been saddened to think of anything as intimate as a family celebration being held anyplace but at home. Her way was to cook up a super mid-afternoon feast for the family that included all of our favorites, never mind hers. Given the season and because we were all mad about artichokes, that’s how the meal began: those leafy globes steamed and served warm alongside little cups of hot melted butter and lemon wedges for those who wanted to add a spritz.
The main course would be either a garlic-scented roasted leg of lamb or a prime rib of beef and with that crisp, tiny new potatoes—peeled, roasted and seasoned only with kosher coarse salt. The mandatory vegetable, was asparagus, the tips sliced and steamed in butter along with new peas and dicings of onion all to be sprinkled with minced dill.
And for once dessert was not her legendary lemon meringue pie, but rather strawberry shortcake—cloudlets of whipped cream and sliced berries on layers of walnut-flecked sponge cake.
We of course gave her gifts: jewelry, a new handbag, handkerchiefs, scarves, flowers, chocolates, perfume—things my father gave us money to buy until my brother and I earned our own. Most of all, and inspired by a theme song that played on the radio every Sunday morning as my mother toiled away, we did the clean-up. But oh! that theme song, as fresh in my mind now as ever:
Less work for mother,
Let’s lend her a hand
Less work for mother
So she’ll understand.
“Less work for Mother,” was the theme of the Horn & Hardart restaurant chain and the ditty introduced its weekly radio program, the Horn & Hardart Children’s Hour, a variety show during the 1930s and ‘40s with children as performers. The company had both the famous (and much-missed) cafeterias, where little windowed vending machines issued forth tempting favorites once the right amount of nickels were dropped into their slots, as well as the bakery-style retail shops spotted around the city. There one could save Mother work by buying specialties fully-prepared and ready-to-heat. Among such were Boston baked beans, chicken pot pie, codfish cakes with tomato sauce, baked macaroni and cheese, beef stew and for dessert, the iconic rice pudding. But as delicious as such dishes were and although my mother gladly ate them when she took us to an H&H cafeteria, she regarded it as almost immoral to have ready-made food at home.
So dedicated was she to preparing meals from scratch that almost every remembered image I have of her is set in the kitchen. She was there every morning frying eggs, cooking up oatmeal or flipping pancakes for pre-school breakfasts and she was there in the afternoon when I got home from school to find her chopping and simmering away for dinner. Although I had a desk in my room, on many dreary winter afternoons I would carry my homework down to the big kitchen table where I subliminally absorbed the way certain things looked as they were being prepared with the result that I knew how to cook something. Every once in a while, she would hand me a choice morsel or two—a bit of seasoned raw chopped beef spread on a small piece of caraway rye bread or a juicy chicken wing warm from the soup pot—all to keep up my strength as I agonized over some damned arithmetic problem, always my worst subject.
Those are the thoughts that come back to me every Mother’s Day even as I confess that this year I will celebrate with brunch at a restaurant along with my son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. Less work for Mother, and how!