Yes, it may seem weird, but chocolate chip funny face pancakes are sort of a Muslim in America thing.
And there is an effort underway to change that — a little.
Let me explain for folks unfamiliar with what’s coming this weekend: the start of the holy month of Ramadan.
During Ramadan, observant Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.
That usually means there are festive and huge iftars — the evening meal — all month. Buffets, parties, family potlucks, especially on Friday nights.
Thomas Jefferson held the first White House iftar in 1805, when a Muslim dignitary was visiting during Ramadan, and the president changed the mealtime to make sure it was after sundown.
But the trickier meal for American Muslims is suhoor, the pre-dawn meal, which usually happens around 3 or 4 a.m.
For decades, IHOP, the home of that famous, smiling chocolate chip pancake breakfast, has been one of the only places across the country — from big cities to country towns, from Los Angeles to West Virginia — where a Muslim family can load up on a filling meal before the day-long fast ahead.
In the same way Jews embraced the only restaurants often open on Christmas — Chinese eateries — Muslims adopted IHOP as a beloved part of Ramadan in America.
Twitter is already full of Muslims saying their IHOP craving is beginning to kick in, with moms excited to bring their kid to their first “grand American tradition of the IHOP suhoor.” And then there’s the funny intersection of Muslim families next to booths of drunken clubbers satisfying their 3 a.m. munchies. This mash-up has inspired some comic “Whoa. Did I just walk into a Muslim convention?”pre-dawn tweets over the years.
And: “A co-worker told me he thought Ramadan is when Muslims go to IHOP at 4 a.m. in the morning LOL,” tweeted @SaqibTheRobot, from Houston.
There is a small split in the Muslim community between the IHOP and Denny’s sects.
But, well, pork-loving Moons Over My Hammy isn’t winning Denny’s too many points, maybe?
Though IHOP comes out as the clear favorite, even for just a month, chocolate chip pancakes can get old. The same thing happens to vegetarians, who get sick of being offered nothing but salads and pasta.
So enter “Dine After Dark,” a new effort by a D.C. graduate student who spotted a classmate eating at 7-Eleven because nothing else was open when it was time for her to have her suhoor meal. Katherine Ashworth Brandt isn’t even Muslim. But she’s urging area restaurants to extend their hours to be more Ramadan-friendly.
“I have a lot of Muslim friends in my life, and I am embarrassed to say it never really dawned on me what an inconvenience it was until then,” said Brandt, 34, a former congressional staffer.
“As someone who celebrates Christian holidays, I can go into any store in the area and buy Easter candy when it’s Easter.”
Ever wonder about the Friday fish fry or the limited time fast food fish sandwiches every spring? That’s the market catering to Catholics during Lent.
But her friends had few places to eat at 3 a.m. besides IHOP.
“So in some ways, this can be more about capitalism than religion. It’s meeting a market need,” she said.
The always inclusive Busboys and Poets has joined in, and so has City Winery (to the consternation of some Muslims who didn’t like a place — even one that has a full menu of food — associated with alcohol hooking up with a dry religion). And Martha’s Table will serve Muslims at late hours from one of its food carts.
But isn’t it easy for Muslims to just stop eating out that month?
Sure, plenty of Muslim families stay at home during Ramadan and avoid the pancake-heavy diet that comes with going out at those hours.
“Personally, I have a hard time getting up to even go downstairs to my kitchen to eat a meal at 3 a.m.,” said Rabiah Ahmed, who works in public relations on Muslim-related issues and who has patiently been explaining Muslim traditions to me for at least a decade.
She said the IHOP ritual is alive and well, and in places like Northern Virginia with large Muslim populations, there are Pakistani, Arab and Afghan places that keep Ramadan hours.
But it’s the last 10 nights that are the most challenging when it comes to food. Those nights are when Muslims are encouraged to stay up as long as they can and pray. That’s when the restaurant outings help.
And it’s when teens like her son love hanging out at restaurants with all their friends at 3 a.m. and when women turn Ramadan into a Muslim GNO (Girls Night Out).
“Going out for suhoor has become quite a social thing,” Ahmed said.
Mariam Mokhtarzada, a social butterfly and mom to one of my son’s best friends, agreed.
“Ramadan is a time when Muslims turn inward for reflection and spiritual rejuvenation. But it’s also a time when Muslims are encouraged to turn outward as well to connect with each other,” said Mokhtarzada, who is executive director of the Next Wave Muslim Initiative in Bethesda.
So, food! Right?
Yes. But she’s moved away from the IHOP model, because “no one wants just pancakes at 4 a.m.,” she said.
Her crowd does Silver Diner, the regional chain of diners whose charismatic founder is a Dutchman named Ype Von Hengst.
He said he saw his places fill up with Muslims during Ramadan and knew it was smart to offer a halal burger.
“We are a place where people love to gather, and I like to include all religions,” he said, pointing to the restaurant’s fish menu that reminds him of growing up with the fish Friday tradition in Europe.
A halal burger at 3 a.m. during Ramadan? Nothing more American than that.