When I was growing up, birthday parties were at home with red rover, relays and maybe a dip in the pool out back. My parents even “did it up” with themes (the best: bring your doll/animal and create a Polaroid-filled baby book with drawings and descriptions of their stats, favorites and firsts). As a parent, I now know that required A LOT of work. Still, these parties don’t compare to what some parents are doing today.
I’ve even fallen victim to it–hiring entertainment, obsessing over party favors and decking out my house FOR FOUR YEAR OLDS. But, I am universes away from six-figure celebrity spawn shindigs – sometimes held at wildlife parks or on cruise ships and featuring boy bands, butterflies, bunnies and boatloads of buttercream.
The problem: this outrageous birthday culture is leaking into other pedestrian holidays. I say BRAVO to this beautiful open letter to parents to dial it down – please.
Rant Over: Back to Birthdays and Back to Basics
The reality: birthdays are beyond brilliant for kids and somehow it.is.worth.it. to just sleep (a lot) less and drink (a little) more in the weeks leading up to one of these (relatively low-key) par-tays for my magical little mamas or their baby brother.
But when I think about the birthday celebration goal in simple terms, it is the same as any other day–a smile on my child’s face and the assurance they feel loved and fed physically, emotionally and spiritually. That’s basic.
The back-to-the-basics solution: cake. Homemade cake. Have I oversimplified the formula for making your child feel loved on his or her birthday? Perhaps. But for me, homemade cake on one’s birthday is a symbol of a love of luxurious proportions (not without blood, sweat and tears) grounded in three generations of women in my family.
The Original: Grandma
The warm waft of a cake or pie in progress triggers a multitude of memories spent baking with my maternal grandma. My senses go into overdrive remembering her wearing her vest-style daily apron uniform in her 60s kitchen–complete with vinyl sunflower wallpaper, white lacquered cabinets dotted with shiny disc knobs large enough to see your distorted reflection and a cookie jar filled with custom orders–chocolate chip for me and butterscotch chip “Scotchies” for my brother.
Famous in her community for baking, she was a desserts-only high school lunch lady who worked to help make college possible for her kids. It was an era when “saving the extra baked pie crust pieces” for students who complimented her cooking was not only tolerated but applauded. Can you imagine? Today, I hear most kids are allergic to pie crust.
She was famous to me for special summer visits spent experiencing small town living with she and my grandpa and for helping me tackle baking projects that were always the right size and splendor for her chocoholic granddaughter.
Her birthday specialty for my mom? The rainbow cake. My mom believes she likely learned about it from a ladies magazine because that was her source for most important things. I can still hear her whispering her nickname for Redbook to my mom under her breath (Sexbook).
The Innovator: Mom
When I was growing up my mom just had to raise the bar (thanks Mom) by adding professional cake decorating to the rainbow cake family formula. She took classes at the local public school and the rest of the story reads like a comic book with an unflinching sweets savant superheroine who refuses to be intimidated by vanilla buttercream villains or derailed by the demons of detailed design.
She tackled everything from R2D2 to my beloved Barbie cake. I remember going to bed when the cake was a blank canvas of white icing and waking up to a masterpiece. Today, I fully appreciate what was going on into the wee hours of the night, particularly during years when my mom and I probably weren’t speaking. I’ll have to remember that during the terrible teens.
The Copycat: Yours Truly
I am not sure how I can make my mark on the family birthday baking legacy but I am grateful that my grandma and mom gave me the 101. I’ll let you in on a secret…as warm and fuzzy as this piece is (I admittedly choked up while writing it) making these cakes IS NO WALK IN THE PARK. It is a two or three-day process my friend and I (who also uses our family formula) refer to as cake-a-palooza. But I am growing. On the eve of completing one of this year’s cakes, my husband admired my progress noting how impressed he was that I hadn’t had a tear-filled temper tantrum (yet).
Before you deem cake decorating some kind of unattainable Martha Stewart pipe dream, I want you to know–I am not a do-it-yourselfer. Craft stores give me hives and I run directly to my trusty dry cleaner/tailor when a button falls off of any item of clothing. Making these cakes are my three artistic moments each year. Period.
Our smiling photos don’t show my behind-the-scenes “birthday cakes by the numbers” reality: birthday beneficiaries: 3; dishwasher/sous chef husbands: 1; cakes: 12; hours spent looking for the perfect design online: 15; bottles of wine: lost count; average number of days post-cake that stained hands look like abstract icing dye art: 4; panic attacks over the whole cake being ruined in a split second from the slip of a pastry bag: at least 200.
Remember the simple birthday celebration goal? I think I’m doing an okay job realizing it, loving my kids one cake at a time.
What are your family birthday food traditions? What new ones are you starting?