Wednesday, September 13, 2006
The Birthday Cakes of My Life
Today is my birthday.
Because it falls on a Wednesday, and Wednesdays aren't really good for anyone or anything (unless you're in Mankato and on your way to Blue Bricks for pitchers of Long Islands), this means that my birthday has been stretched into a week-long celebration. Last night I was at my grandmother's house for a birthday dinner. Tonight is my father's turn. Friday I'll be with the girls. Saturday is my mother's party. And that's when I will get my traditional birthday cake.
For the last three years I had a different kind of traditional birthday cake. Penis cakes. Each year Katy would cut a sheet cake into various phalluses and then frost them. Sometimes the frosting went awry and came out looking orange. Or green. That didn't mean it was any less delicious.
But before that tradition came along, there was a more wholesome one.
My mother and grandmother, both goddesses among bakers, own these books--soft-bound pamphlets, really--that were published in 1959 by General Foods.
The book was a promotional-type thing meant to push for the use of Baker's Coconut. When I was born, my grandmother made one of these cakes for my birthday. It was my very first birthday cake:
My grandmother wrote my name and the year (Jessica 1982) in the margin, and that's how it all started for me. From then on out, each year I would get one of those cakes. And then my brother came along. And he started getting cakes. When my cousins were born, they got them, too. My grandmother or mother would faithfully label each cake with the names and dates each time they made them. Today you can look at that book and know what cakes each of us had for our birthdays in, say, 1987 or 1995.
Of course, it wasn't just us. You can track my mother and her brother's birthdays, too. On one of the pages my grandmother let Uncle Eric write his own name, so you can see his giant RICKIE scrawled by the date 1963.
This is a serious family tradition. This is something that's been going on for years and years and years. This is something I will do for my children and maybe for my brother's children. After all, he might end up marrying a non-baking Hooters waitress, and who's going to bake the kids' cakes then? Me and my mother, that's who.
Anyway, I experience a little bit of panic each year before my birthday. This is because after all the kids were old enough to talk and make decisions, we were able to choose which cake we wanted. This was (and is) no small feat. Sometimes it takes hours to decide. I go back and forth, back and forth. Terrier or butterfly? Rocking horse or elephant?
There have been some repeats over the years, sure, but that's because there are cakes that are so cute, so adorable, so perfect that you kind of want to have them every single year. They're our favorites. My mother's favorite cake is the little girl cake. She had it when she was a little girl--I think it was for her tenth birthday--and when I was that old she wanted to make it for me, too. But when I was ten I didn't want a little girl cake. I wanted a space shuttle cake (which is from another, non-animal cut-out cake book that's part of the family tradition). And I got the space shuttle cake, but each year after, my mother would ask if I wanted the little girl cake yet and I always said no. Finally, when I was old enough to appreciate how cute the little girl cake was, I asked my mother to make it for me. It was my seventeenth birthday.
It's nice to be back in New York with my family for this birthday. It means a lot of things, including the traditional cut-out cake. Last week my mother brought the book into the living room and set it in my lap. She told me to pick. And then I spent the next half an hour debating the finer points of the lion cake, the penguin cake, and the giraffe cake. No one has ever had the giraffe cake, and that's why I chose it. I feel sorry for it. It's very cute in this charmingly awkward way, and I can't wait to see it on Saturday. It's time for Jerry Giraffe to make his debut.
For reference, you can see the whole cut-out book here.