Full Complement

An Ode to Philadelphia and a Treatise on Brunch

FATHER’S DAY is one of those designated “holidays” that you can’t escape: it’s on every TV channel, Hallmark has us convinced it’s a sacrilege to forget the date, Macy‘s has enormous sales that make me wish I wore polo shirts and ties, and even Home Depot is in on the conspiracy. It seems like you couldn’t turn a corner this past week without being walloped with the specter of Father’s Day To Come.

But there are secondary benefits to days such as this, other than the obligatory phone calls and the frustration of trying to figure out what it is that Dad doesn’t need but would actually like. Yeah, those are hugely agreeable pastimes. But I’d like to point out one benefit, which is extremely close to my–er–heart: Sunday Brunch.

Of course, on this particular Sunday, my own father was an ocean away, having moles harvested from his shoulders (my mother has a really weird conception of the “perfect gift for him”). Instead of spending this “faux-liday” with my daddy, I spent it with The Relatives. Considering that we had three fathers at the table, it definitely counts as a Father’s Day gathering, and despite the numbers (10 of us!)–which might cause a more fainthearted person to doubt the outcome–it was fun.

KissI forget, sometimes, how awesome Philly is. This owes a lot to the fact that I am not often in the company of kids. I deal with 17-year-olds on a regular basis, but they are jaded and gangly and they consider it a point of honor to never display any excess of emotion, particularly excitement. But a 7-year-old, coming off an obsession with National Treasure, isn’t offended by Nicolas Cage’s dumbbell acting and is, instead, completely agog with the prospect of getting to see Old City and the Liberty Bell. He even told me, thinking it was in confidence (ha!), that he thought he might wet his pants. Oh, what a difference a decade makes! Somewhere between 7 and 17, that capacity for unlikely obsessions and wet-your-pants enthusiasm fades, only to be replaced by the horrors of trying to impress your peer group while yet coming off as cool and not at all desperate for friendship. I infinitely prefer the 7-year-old. They’re so much easier to clean up after.

Philly was a town made for kids. There’s history (Philly was our nation’s original capital and the Declaration of Independence was signed here), and kids get a charge out of that. There are parks aplenty, complete with swing sets, fountains and statues of goats. There are even dinosaurs, for that particularly keen child. The science museum runs exhibits on King Tut and Star Wars and Real Pirates and, really, what kid wouldn’t love that? There’s even a museum dedicated specifically to kids, the Please Touch Museum, which won’t let you in the door unless you’re accompanying a suitably small minor (when I lived down the road from the museum, my friends wanted me to use a pick-up line referencing the ‘Please Touch Me Museum.’ Somehow, I resisted the temptation).

And for the slightly older kids, there’s always a run up the stairs of the Art Museum, both to re-enact Rocky and to wear them out so their parents can finally take a breather.


Of course, we couldn’t do all of that in one day. We confined ourselves to a ten-person brunch at Sabrina’s Cafe on 18th and Callowhill (I’d been there before, and was pleased to find it filled to capacity and positively bustling with conversation and laughter), and then to a walk through Old City on a quest for the Liberty Bell and some old-fashioned home-made ice cream.

At Sabrina‘s, our overworked waiter awarded us the unofficial prize for most french toast orders at one table: five of us decided to take on the Mount Everest of challah french toasts–the Stuffed Caramelized Challah French Toast–and all five of us were determined to eat it by ourselves. All five of us failed.

SquishMy niece, aged three, had the right idea: she downed about 20 of the tiny Half & Half creamers and ate four french fries. And then proceeded to drink a little bit of everybody’s orange juice and turn up her nose at a bit of her mother’s omelet. That’s kids for you.

With our doggie bags of the leftovers–the waiter had the boxes all ready before we even asked; he knew, even if we didn’t–we headed out for a day on the town. First up: the Liberty Bell. The boys wanted to check out Old Philadelphia, while Team:Girl decided to sit it out and catch up on some good old-fashioned family gossip. While my niece slept, my aunt, cousin and I reminisced about my birth, my other cousins, various family sagas, and the remarriage and subsequent relocation of my grandmother to Ontario, Canada. I like to think that this makes my grandmother an amazing role model. Yeah, she’s a bit batty and extreme in her personal choices, but the woman’s got game. At 75.

I hope to be that man-lethal when I’m in my dotage.

Once the boys got back from stampeding the historical sites of Philadelphia and peppering the tour guides with their incessant questions (10-year-olds are particularly good at this), we took off. My cousin, who eats about as much as her daughter, has one weakness: Ice Cream. Put her in a strange city, and she’ll find the single reputable ice cream joint in walking distance. (She made me promise most fervently to take her to Capogiro‘s next time she’s in town.)

HandsSo it was no surprise that the next stop on our tour of Old City was Franklin Fountain. Of course, by the time we actually got there the boys were dragging along (the allure of history had long since faded) and only perked up for their chocolate milkshakes. My cousin had her bowl of coffee ice cream, my aunt a scoop of some fruity concoction, and I had a refreshing helping of Creme de Lafayette–a red, white & blue tribute to our early allies through the medium of French Vanilla ice cream complemented by blueberries and raspberries. By the time we’d downed our servings, my niece had woken up (demanding ice cream, of course; this kid is so totally her mother in miniature, minus the baby fat), the boys were pooped, and my cousin’s brother-in-law had sticky palms from a battle with the waffle cone.

And that pretty much summed up the day. We wandered back to my apartment, dragging our drooping boys along, where goodbyes were said and the children reminded to use the bathroom before their long car trip back to Albany. Promises of future visits were exchanged; hugs were passed out freely. And then, with a final round of “write us!” and “call us!”… they were gone. Father’s Day had ended. The apartment echoed with my lonely footsteps, reminding me that sometimes, even when you think it’s all going to be too much to handle, a day with family is exactly what the doctor ordered.

I realize that this post has been only tangentially about food. However, in my defense, I’d like to point out that brunch is about more than just what you eat. Brunch is about company, and laughter. Brunch should be a time to catch up, to breathe, to relax, to remember. At its heart, brunch is a meal that invites confidences (weren’t most revelations first, um, revealed over eggs or salad in Sex and the City?), even as it satisfies that important and somewhat more elemental craving. In exchange for stories, personal crises, and other tall tales of the urban jungle, we get food. At brunch, you’re expected to feed your soul even as you feed your appetite, simultaneously acting as a consumer and a storyteller.

MilkI’d also like to point out that brunch is sacred terrain. Carrie & company taught us that brunch is a time for friends; the only scene that I can remember where their catch-up and tell-all brunch was interrupted by a flesh-and-blood man (every single one of their other brunches was interrupted by the specter of at least one man) is the tear-jerker scene in the final season where Big asks the girls where he can find Carrie and admits, at last, that he wants her permanently in his life. Which is pretty much the only good reason for a brunch to be interrupted.

I once made the mistake of going on a brunch date, which turned out to be a disaster and made it very clear that I cannot do romance and brunch at the same time. At least not for a first date, or possibly even a fifteenth. There’s a rhythm to brunch that cannot be faked; it is a rhythm born of close friendship, of knowing how to time a response between mouthfuls and swigs of coffee. It’s a rhythm you only achieve if you have grown into yourself around your fellow brunchers, and can relax into comfortable silences as easily as you can slip into concerned listener mode. To brunch, you must be a feaster, a confidante, and a well-lived soul.

Beyond that, make of it as you will: if you take nothing else away with you but this, that brunch is an experience to be measured in forkfuls and in confidences, I will be content. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote that “sometimes the meal is the only currency that is real.” Live your brunches like this is true, and your life will be rich with friends and memories.

And Daddy, Happy Father’s Day. Again.