Even though you’re all grown up (and I’m thinking most of you are), do you still sort of crave a cake each year on your birthday? Something with lots of pretty icing; something sweet? Or is it the time of year that you have your favorite meal cooked by a friend, or have them take you to a normally out-of-the-budget restaurant? How big a deal do you make of it?
Birthdays and birthday cakes have been on my mind a lot lately. My daughter recently celebrated her birthday (did she ever!), and my husband’s was in March. Both involved birthday desserts – in my daughter’s case more than one. I don’t know if other parents of young children out there feel as overwhelmed by the amount of celebrating that goes on for their children as I do, but I have to say, my memories of birthdays seem very low key, while still entirely wonderful, in comparison. My daughter’s school allows for a small treat to be brought in to celebrate a child’s birthday. Of course I could opt out, but that would seem mean spirited, especially since the other kids bring in something. OK, I thought, we’ll do something small and easy – mini cupcakes. Then there was the birthday party. After having baked my daughter’s first few birthday cakes I quickly learned that home-made isn’t really in with the younger set; no, lurid colored flowers and lots of extremely sweet icing are the thing. So off we went to order a cake (complete with lots and lots of brightly colored icing flowers) for the party. Feeling confident that this was going to make her and the other kids happy, I relaxed. And then, one night at bedtime the week before her birthday, she asked “Mom, what will my home cake be?” I did the usual parent thing: put it off. “We’ll talk about that tomorrow, OK sweetheart?” The problem was that my mind was racing – do I give in and make a dessert in addition to all these cupcakes? How many cupcakes is it reasonable to have? Can I get away with something easier or do I put my foot down and say enough is enough?
I went with making something easier. What can I say, I’m a sucker. The next morning on the way to school I said “I think we’re going to compromise on your home birthday treat. How does chocolate mousse sound?” I’m pleased to say that it sounded just fine. And so it was that she got two different kinds of cupcakes and some chocolate mousse. I’m appreciating my husband’s simple and predictable desire for a raspberry sour cream tart more than ever after this birthday hullabaloo. It also made me wonder what some of my friends from different parts of the world do to celebrate birthdays, so I started asking around.
The first person I asked is a friend from Beijing, China. She said that these days there is always an American-style birthday cake for children there, usually in the shape of a monkey or a panda. Adults have a long noodle on their birthdays. The length of the noodle signifies long life. There is also a dim sum that looks like a peach, made with flour on the outside and a sweet bean paste inside. For adults at least one of these two things must be served. It is okay to have both, but it is absolutely necessary for there to be at least one of them.
My friend Joan spends a couple of months in Guatemala each year. The birthday cakes she’s seen, and she definitely sees them at birthday parties, look very much like the typical layer cakes we have in the U.S. — but they taste much sweeter to her. She recently went to the birthday party for a 70 year old, where four cakes, two chocolate mousse and two strawberry mousse (all very sweet) were served. At another birthday party she went to recently there were no cakes, but a large selection of various sweets, called “dulces.” Again, she found them sweeter than American desserts. She asked a Guatemalan friend for his memories of birthday cakes and he remembered things like homemade banana or carrot cakes from when he was a boy; the American style purchased birthday cake has become popular in the past 30 years or so. Another newer tradition among those who have enough money to do so is to have birthday parties at Pollo Campero, a Guatemalan fried chicken franchise.
My next international correspondent is a Ghanaian friend and former coworker. When she was growing up birthdays weren’t that big a deal. There would be a nice meal with soft drinks and some home baked goods for the immediate family and possibly a few friends, but only if the family could afford it. These days it has become much more Americanized, and even more over the top than most of us experience here. Birthdays are now big events, especially for milestone birthdays. There are usually big parties, most planned for the weekend so people can stay longer, with many friends and relatives. Lots of Ghanaian food is served: rice, chicken, fish, vegetables, along with catered cakes and cookies. These parties normally end with a church service on the Sunday to give thanks for another year. For the less well-to-do, homemade cakes and cookies are sent to school to celebrate a child’s birthday.
My in-laws both grew up in Scotland, although their memories of childhood birthdays differ a bit (it is important to keep in mind that all of the other information is coming from one source only). My mother in law remembers birthdays as being only celebrated for children with no special tradition. There would likely be a Victoria sponge (two sponge cakes one atop the other, with a filling – usually fruit and whipped cream) with candles on top. My father in law doesn’t remember any occasions when his family had a special cake for any birthdays. But he points out that he sees the Scottish as notoriously sweet-toothed and figures that they indulged themselves regularly, so maybe one didn’t need a birthday to get something sweet. His small hometown boasted two bakeries that made a variety of scones, tea-breads, and fruit tarts that were enjoyed with tea at any time of the day.
Italy is the lone holdout against the Americanization of birthdays among my (admittedly limited) group. Stephanie, one of my closest friends, lived in Italy for many years and now teaches Italian at Kent State University. She says that it isn’t customary to have birthday cake in Italy, and in fact that sort of cake doesn’t exist there. No specific dessert is associated with the gatherings. And, for those of you in search of a free meal, you might try finding an Italian friend who is having a birthday — in Italy the birthday boy or girl does the treating and takes friends out for a drink, pizza or a meal.
So it seems I’m not the only one who feels that birthdays have become bigger deals over the years. Not only that, but the American way of celebrating them is, like so many other aspects of our way of life, spreading around the world. I think I will do my tiny bit for world unity and common sense (or at least my own sense of maternal calm) by having a much lower key birthday for my daughter next year!
PS- A special thanks to Heather!