So you forgot to make a reservation for Mother's Day brunch? Better go to Plan B - for Bisquick, that is. By now, just two days before the national day of honor for moms, even her favorite neighborhood bistro is probably booked, so you'll be on your own in whipping up a meal that has become to Mother's Day what fireworks are to the Fourth of July.
OK, it's true that roses and chocolates will also have their place on Sunday. But more than these, ahem, tokens of affection, brunch has emerged as the quintessential Mother's Day tradition. About 4 out of every 10 Americans (38 percent) will eat out on Sunday, making it the hottest restaurant day of the year - even besting Valentine's Day.
Though motherhood and moms have changed a lot since brunch first began to catch on after World War II, the tradition seems to be sticking, even growing. Eight years ago, 30 percent of Americans dined out on Mother's Day, says the National Restaurant Association.
Forty-five percent of moms polled in a Zagat survey celebrate Mother's Day by going out for brunch, 26 percent go out to dinner, 25 percent enjoy a special meal at home, and 3 percent are treated to breakfast in bed.
There are as many reasons for the popularity of Mother's Day brunch as there are recipes for egg dishes. But the recognition that Mom could use a reprieve - whether she is at home tending to children full time or juggling the demands of outside work and family - perhaps remains the No. 1 motivator.
"This tradition is symbolic for mothers because it's a luxury meal in the middle of the day when moms are not typically off duty," says cookbook author Mollie Katzen.
"It's a real breather, and it can feel so indulgent in a beautiful way to relax and be pampered this way," she adds.
Indeed, many families splurge on Mother's Day, opting to take Mom to a more upscale, elegant establishment - where those pesky reservations are required - than the family-friendly chains she's used to.
At the Four Seasons Hotel Boston, for example, Mother's Day brunch has been sold out for almost a month. Eggs Benedict is expected to be the top pick on the menu among the 1,000 diners there on Sunday.
Brennan's in New Orleans, also a destination for celebrations, had no trouble booking its 1,200 seats. Among diners who will savor its famed turtle soup and Shrimp Sardou are some large, multigenerational families who hold standing reservations there year after year.
Brunch has also been called the "easiest meal of the day," as it is casual in tone, features a varied menu, and it also fits most easily into the schedules of many generations in a family. Grandma can order grilled steak, Uncle George can munch on Teriyaki Chicken Wings, and the kids can enjoy a burger or scrambled eggs.
"It's such a big eat-out occasion because mothers don't have to worry either about cooking, cleaning, or, if she's invited to her adult children's home, imposing," says Clark Wolf, a New York food and restaurant consultant.
Mr. Wolf recalls another motivation for taking Mom out on Mother's Day: "I remember it being the first time we had a polite excuse not to eat Mom's postwar, freeze-dried cooking," he says with a laugh. "And she didn't need to feel insulted that we didn't want her to cook."
But on a more serious note, Wolf says the brunch tradition has become even more important to families since Sept. 11.
"One of the few social changes that has stuck since then is the trend toward more multigenerational eating within families," he explains, adding: "This falls under the life's-too-short category."
Brunch is the ideal family meal, says Nina Zagat, publisher with her husband, Tim, of the best-selling Zagat guides, which rank restaurants in many categories, one of which is this trendy morning meal.
"Brunch menus," she says, "offer something for all ages, and there's nothing buttoned up about places that offer brunch, so everyone can relax."
Of course, the brunch trend in general is an enormous boon to the restaurant industry. But that's especially true on Mother's Day. Unlike Valentine's Day, when reservations are made in twos, big parties are the norm when honoring Mom.
"If restaurants succeed in making it a happy day for everyone, they have gained customers for life," says Wolf. "For special occasions, we all go back to places we love, where we can celebrate not only the familial but also the familiar."
For Katzen, that most familial and familiar place is right at home in the sunshine on her deck in Berkeley, Calif. "The light in the morning is so glorious here," she says. But even more of a pull than the warm sunlight, she says, is enjoying the spirit of giving reflected in a Mother's Day brunch cooked from scratch.
"I would much rather be served something funky that the kids made for me - even leathery pancakes," she says, "than something perfect from a good restaurant.
Cheryl Alters Jamison, a food writer in Santa Fe, N.M., would agree. "There's a lot of hype," she says. "Marketers from the hospitality industry try to sell you the idea that it's a hassle to cook at home, even for children to make something with Dad's help."
No matter. Even Marion Cunningham, the doyenne of American home cooking, says it's not where you eat a meal, but whom you eat it with that counts.
Sharing a leisurely meal with loved ones, she says - whether it is on a picnic blanket in your backyard or at the Ritz - is a ritual that's fast becoming a relic.
But on Mother's Day, this ritual appears to be in full swing, and unlike on Valentine's Day, a more-the-merrier approach often takes precedence. "No one feels slighted if you have three generations of moms at brunch," says Wolf.
The restaurant brunch trend is clearly gaining steam, so it might not be too early for mothers to drop a hint or two for next year. Or the person on the planning end of things might want to jot a note to self about booking a table at Mom's favorite bistro for May 8, 2005.
Americans will spend $10 billion - nearly $100 per person - on Mother's Day purchases this year. Fifty-nine percent of consumers plan to buy a Mother's Day card, while roughly a third (35.5 percent) will buy flowers or take Mom to a restaurant (33.1 percent). Here are other Mother's Day facts:
• There are 82.5 million moms in the US.
• Most households will buy an average of 2.8 cards, with up to 80 percent of the cards being purchased the week before Mother's Day.
• If Mom receives cut flowers, they will probably come from Colombia or California.
• Among 36 surveyed states, California was the leading provider of cut flowers in 2002, accounting for more than two-thirds of the domestic production ($279 million out of $410 million).
• Twenty-two percent of the flowers purchased for Mother's Day will be flowering or green houseplants.
• Most consumers say they'll purchase Mom's gift from a specialty store. But 31 percent will buy from a discount store.
• Only 14.6 percent plan to do their Mother's Day shopping online.
Sources: US Census Bureau, National Retail Federation, and Hallmark Cards.