My birthday sometimes falls on Mother’s Day. In the past this has meant that it is the Moms and I lining up at the hostess stand for Sunday Brunch at the fancy restaurant. Not my mom, however. My mom was born during the Depression and she felt that spending a lot of money on what was essentially just breakfast food was a total waste. Unless, of course, it was a buffet. Now a buffet spoke to her. It said ‘you will not leave hungry, you will get your money’s worth’. My mom’s favorite place for Mother’s Day brunch was the Crown Room of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. The view and abundance of food was quite the spectacle to behold: silver bowls heaped with fresh red strawberries and mounds of whipped cream. The carving station held a huge baron of beef, a whole roasted turkey and ham on the bone. There was a station with omelettes being made to order. And for those of us who love pancakes there was an interesting concoction that I am sure was inspired by the classic English Trifle. At least a dozen pancakes about twelve inches in diameter were spread with a thick layer of raspberry jam. They were then stacked on top of each other in a silver bowl and topped with whipped cream. This gooey delicious mess was my favorite. My mom was crazy about the cold seafood display complete with an ice sculpture of the Golden Gate Bridge. I can still see her plate heaped with pink prawns and crab legs.
I can’t see an ad for a buffet without thinking of her. I wrote the piece below in her honor three years ago. I am reprinting it now because she passed away a few months ago and she is on my mind daily. She reminded me often that she would not always be around and that she thought about her own mother every day. I now know exactly what she meant.
My Mother’s favorite ‘dining experience’ has always been the ‘buffet’. As a child of The Depression, I think she is overcome with joy and relief when she sees dish after dish spread out before her with a sign that reads “Take all you can eat but eat all that you take”. Because it was a good way for a single mother in the 60’s to feed her child and herself inexpensively, my childhood was full of these buffets or, as we called them in San Leandro, “Smorgy’s” (short for smorgasbord?). Our favorites were the “The Pipers” on MacArthur Boulevard and the less expensive “Perry Boy’s Smorgy” on the other side of town in the Marina area.
Both restaurants were dimly lit except for the bright spotlights that hung low over the buffet tables. A tall stack of hot, damp white plates fresh out of the dishwasher marked the beginning of these groaning boards. After years of eating at various buffets I became a smorgasbord strategist, I knew that it was important to find a cooler plate or my Jell-O selections would melt before I got back to the table. Also, it was important to approach in stages. A plate heaped too high would find your slice of roast beef swimming in a pink pool of beet juice and salad dressing before you could eat through to the bottom layer.
The first trip to the buffet was for salad – chopped iceberg lettuce, slices of canned beets (the fancier Piper’s served them sliced julienne) all smothered under a big ladle of creamy blue cheese dressing. If the plate was cold I could load up on the lime Jell-O and cottage cheese mold. The second trip was for hot food – canned corn, mashed potatoes, gravy and crispy fried chicken. Finally a trip to the dessert table where two HUGE clear plastic Melmac bowls full of yellow pudding and brown pudding were sunk into a bed of crushed ice. You had to pay extra for drinks so we drank water.
After dessert, my Mother always made one last trip to the buffet. This is when she loaded up her plate with fried chicken thighs and legs. Back at the table, she would look around the restaurant to make sure that no one was watching as she wrapped each piece of greasy chicken in the white paper napkins she had hidden in her black patent leather purse. Still smiling, she snapped her purse shut, asked the waiter for the check and paid the cashier on the way out. Did the waiter see what was going on? She was never busted. No one ever said, ‘Excuse me Madam, hand over the chicken’. I remember being embarrassed but I also remember how fun it was to empty out her purse when we got home. And how delicious that chicken was. I hope that all they saw was a pretty young woman and her child dining alone. But if they did see her ‘slight of hand’ I know that they would have understood it for what it was. Not stealing, but rather just a single mother trying to figure out how to feed herself and her child one more day.