35 Lockwood Drive
Today: Courtyard by Marriott Charleston Waterfront
Yesterday: The Orphan’s Mother dinner theater, 1969-76
On the menu: All-you-can eat Mother’s Day buffet, $2.75 (May 9, 1971)
More than 92 million Americans will take their mothers out to eat this weekend, which makes Mother’s Day by far the most popular dining holiday, outpacing even Valentine’s Day.
But reciprocating maternal love with eggs Benedict is a relatively recent development, especially in Charleston.
Mother’s Day was the brainchild of Anna Jarvis, who didn’t have any children: She devoted her life, which ended with her dying broke and alone in a Philadelphia sanitarium, to enacting her late mother’s vision of celebrations that would span the country. The Jarvises’ dream received congressional approval in 1914.
Jarvis was very particular about what such commemorations ought to entail. She was famously arrested for protesting the sale of Mother’s Day carnations, which she believed violated the non-commercial spirit of the holiday. She was similarly roused to civil disobedience by a “Mother’s Day salad,” listed on the menu of a Philadelphia tearoom. Jarvis ordered it, then dumped it on the floor.
But within a few decades, Mother’s Day meals were fixtures in northern and western cities. Some of them were made at home: In 1948, the same year that Jarvis died, one of Philadelphia’s newspapers asked rhetorically, “What could be more fun than a late morning brunch for the whole family on Mother’s Day?” As the column explained, “brunch is a sort of glamorous, leisurely combination of breakfast and lunch,” and could include such mom-pleasing dishes as individual peach bread pudding.
In many households, though, the only person capable of producing bread pudding was Mother. So restaurants promoted letting the day’s honoree off the hook by making a reservation: The 1961 Mother’s Day specials in Los Angeles included pork orientale and sherbet at The Islander, roast ham at Clifton’s Cafeteria and cherrystone clams at The Oyster House.
Yet Charleston restaurants didn’t actively promote their Mother’s Day menus until the early 1970s, and even then it took a quasi-restaurant to lead the way. The Orphan’s Mother, a dinner theater venue, was among the first entities citywide to suggest there could be more to the holiday than bouquets and perfume.
Founded in 1969 by Joya Smith (later Baker), The Orphan’s Mother took its name from "The Orphan," a stage play produced in Charleston back in 1725. The theater group was so warmly received by the community that The News and Courier’s Frank B. Gilbreath Jr. in 1971 griped good-naturedly about how much money the troupe must be spending on public relations.
The same year, The Orphan’s Mother announced its Mother’s Day brunch, reasoning in a newspaper ad that “after all, our middle name is Mother.” There is no record of what was featured on its buffet.
Five years later, The Orphan’s Mother folded. Yet Mother’s Day dining persists, albeit later in the day: According to a survey released last year by the National Restaurant Association, brunch is still the Mother’s Day meal of choice for 36 percent of diners who’ve reached retirement age. But more than half of consumers aged 35-44 prefer to go out for Mother’s Day dinner.
— Hanna Raskin