May 11, 2012
I love my mom and all, but I also want to recognize another set of mothers—those blobs of yeast and bacterial cultures found floating in unpasteurized cider, wine vinegar, and other fermented liquids, like cloudy constellations of pond scum. The Dutch have a word for mud and mire (modder) that may have lent its name to these mothers, but given the proliferation of the term across Europe—French mère de vinaigre or Spanish madre del vino—etymologists suspect that these slimy sediments of mother derived from the mother who takes care of you.
Two mothers seemingly at odds, right? Well, thankfully, the Oxford English Dictionary made a valiant, if somewhat perplexingly worded attempt, to tease out exactly why the lees at the bottom of the barrel came to be named for your female parent:
The transition of sense is difficult to explain; but most probably the scum or dregs of distilled waters and the like was regarded as being a portion of the ‘mother’ or original crude substance which had remained mixed with the refined product, from which in course of time it separated itself. (The term may possibly have belonged originally to the vocabulary of alchemy.) An explanation sometimes given, that ‘mother of vinegar’ was so called on account of its effect in promoting acetous fermentation, does not agree with the history of the use. It has been pointed out that ancient Greek γραῦς old woman, is used in the sense ‘scum, as of boiled milk,’ but the coincidence is probably accidental.
Wine left out in the open air will spontaneously ferment into vinegar if the right airborne microbes land on the surface (Acetobacter bacteria and Mycodermi aceti yeast); the oxidation process can also be kick-started by mixing in the cloudy undeﬁned bacterial and fungal cultures left at the bottom of an old vinegar container—an old, yet reliable, mother. These cultures work in much the same way that yeast or sourdough starters give rise to beer and bread (why these cultures are more often called starters and not mothers remains one of the many vagaries of the English language). Perhaps, then, it’s not all surprising that one mother gave birth to another.
May 10, 2012
Before any major holiday, I see a slew of ads in my email inbox that tout certain foods as being must-have additions to the celebratory table. It’s usually fairly run of the mill fare: special menus at local restaurants, deals on appliances and kitchen tools. The headline “For the Zero Calorie Mom: Sparking Ice Beverages” struck me as a bit odd. I’d be wary of subliminally suggesting that Mom needs to cut the calories on any day of the year, but do you absolutely have to say it on Mother’s Day? I dug some more into how food companies are positioning their products for this time of year, and some of my findings were, well, unconventional.
The prefab foods camp was by far the most entertaining. Their angle: give Mom the gift of not working in the kitchen. In and of itself, this is a brilliant idea. Freschetta created a standalone website to market their gourmet frozen pizzas as ideal fare, going so far as to create a video of moms waxing rhapsodic about the joys of being a parent before going on about how all they really want is a frozen pizza. There is nothing wrong with frozen pizza, but if I were a mom, I would have a much more developed sense of culinary entitlement and would demand a little more. I later went to Schwan’s website—Freschetta’s parent company—and typed in “Mother’s Day” to see what would pop up. The results included things like microwave brownies and sausage patties. The product description pages in no way promoted these things as Mother’s Day foods, so why they appeared before me is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a pizza-flavored snack roll, which was also among the search results.
Hormel—the company that brings us SPAM and Vienna sausages—points to open-faced foods as perfect fare, such as toast with cream cheese and fruit. They also suggest sprinkling cheese on a tortilla and spelling out “MOM” in pre-sliced pepperoni. Is edible Mother’s Day branding necessary for people to know that the meal set before them is a sign of love and appreciation? Would a scattershot arrangement of pepperoni—as one might see on, say, a frozen pizza—seem disingenuous? Or maybe I’m too jaded to get excited by luncheon meat typography.
Pop Tarts takes the cake by offering the opportunity to personalize your toaster pastry packaging with your own images and text. It’s too magnificently kitsch for me to rib. Unfortunately, you had to place orders by May 7 to get your personalized Pop Tarts by the 13th, but it seems that this promotion is available year-round and is certainly suitable for a number of occasions.
And what of liquor? This can be a sensitive subject, since presenting Mother’s Day as a reason to drink does perhaps smack of poor taste. Surely this most sacred of relationships could never induce alcoholism in parent and/or child. In Connecticut, the holiday is held dear to the point that liquor restrictions explicitly state that Mother’s Day cannot be referenced in any way, shape or form in advertising. (Father’s Day is apparently fair game, which makes one wonder about about our culture’s opinion of the paterfamilias.) Pennsylvania law, on the other hand, has no such restrictions, and in 2010 the state’s liquor control board mounted an ad campaign promoting wine and vodka as celebration enhancers, going so far as to suggest mixing a Mother’s Kiss—equal parts strawberry kiwi vodka and lemonade. “So many flavors for only $9.99 each,” the radio ads ran. “That is a $4.00 savings. With deals like this you can afford to treat all the mothers in your life this year.” There was some backlash, with the Independent State Store Union calling for the replacement of the liquor board’s director of marketing and merchandising.
Will you be going traditional brunch route this Sunday when you fete the women who hold your family together or will you be venturing into quirkier culinary territory? Tell us about your meal plans in the comments section below—and don’t forget to call your mother.
May 6, 2011
Once a week, an email chain of epic proportions germinates in my inbox: it’s a regular call to brunch, followed by a scramble to figure out where we’re eating, how many people are in so that reservations can be made, what time we’re eating and whether or not bottomless mimosas are available. No mimosas usually means a change in venue, depending on who’s in. And come Sunday morning there’s a round of phone calls and text messages to rally the oversleeping, hung-over and/or otherwise indisposed members of the group. It’s a complicated affair.
In anticipation of this Sunday, families all across the country will be be going head-t0-head, trying to beat each other out in securing brunch reservations at their favorite dining spots in order to celebrate Mother’s Day. When did people start subjecting themselves to this delicious little slice of Sunday madness?
As is the case with many culinary traditions, the origins are a bit hazy. Some food historians think that the meal has its roots in England’s hunt breakfasts—lavish multi-course meals that featured a smorgasbord of goodies such as chicken livers, eggs, meats, bacon, fresh fruit and sweets. Others posit that Sunday brunch derives from the practice of Catholics fasting before mass and then sitting down for a large midday meal. And then there are those who look to New York’s abundance of dining spots when it comes to tracing the origins of classic brunch dishes from eggs Benedict to bagels and lox.
What does seem certain is that the word “brunch”—that playful blend of “breakfast” and “lunch”—first appeared in print in an 1895 Hunter’s Weekly article. In “Brunch: A Plea,” British author Guy Beringer suggested an alternative to the heavy, post-church Sunday meals in favor of lighter fare served late in the morning. ”Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting,” Beringer says. ”It is 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.”
But wherever the initial spark of genius came from, the tradition definitely seems to have caught on in the United States in the 1930s, supposedly because Hollywood stars making transcontinental train trips frequently stopped off in Chicago to enjoy a late morning meal. It was a meal championed by hotels since most restaurants were closed on Sundays and, with church attendance flagging after World War II, people were looking for a new social outlet that also let them sleep in a bit. Restaurants soon hopped on the bandwagon and began offering the decadent spreads of food and signature morning cocktails, such as Bloody Marys, Bellinis and Mimosas.
“Sunday dinner became important because it was the only time people could eat together as a family unit during the week at the onset of urbanization and industrialization, 150 years ago,” according to Stanford University professor Carl Degler in a 1980 Chicago Tribune article on the rise of America’s brunch culture. He also pointed to another social change that might be responsible for why Sunday brunch became so popular here. “After World War II, large numbers of American married women entered the workforce for the first time. [...] Married women needed a relief on Sunday, too, thus the rise in popularity of Sunday brunch eaten out.”
Chefs, however, aren’t a huge fan. After a busy Saturday night, trying to create a menu for a meal that stretches from 11 A.M. until 3 or 4 in the afternoon—finding that right balance between breakfast foods, lunch foods and exotic hybrids of the two—is no small task. And then there’s the issue of dealing with fussy diners.
Will you be celebrating mom by way of a big brunch buffet this Sunday or do you have other Mother’s Day dining traditions you like to keep? Tell us in the comments area below.