Diner: Consuming Celebration

Birthday eats rather than presents are remembered


When I look back on birthdays past I don't remember cardboard My Little Pony hats with elastic bands. Or bicycles or favorite dolls or special things like that. For one, my birthday comes pretty fast after Christmas and, as far as presents went, they were more often than not leftover gifts my mother found still hidden, wrapped in candy cane paper after the holiday had passed. No, I'm more apt to recall what was on the table to eat each year on my birthday, rather than what was there to unwrap.

Case in point: Last year I recall an inventive beet salad with warm goat cheese, among other things, at Global 33 in Manhattan, that my friend Chris and I washed down with a pitcher of cosmopolitans. When I returned from my weekend in New York City, my boyfriend was waiting with a gift-wrapped package. Neither one of us can remember what was in it.

This goes on for years. Hazy memories of a Cookie Monster cake covered in small blue swirls of frostings and Jell-O pudding parfaits fill my early memories. Birthdays weren't about celebrations at my house.

We focused on the little things, like when my mom bought a set of four Sesame Street character glasses for the three kids with one left over. The leftover, Grover, was the special cup: We got the privilege of drinking from it on our birthdays. Oh yeah, and also when we were sick. And when a friend slept over, she got to use it.

My early birthdays fell under my mother's elaborate cake phase, the result of a mail-order Wilton's cake-decorating class she took one year. What followed were cakes in the shapes of T-shirts, Holly Hobby and various other cartoon characters — each a truly grand addition to the birthday celebration.

The cake baking didn't last long. Then the focus switched to the birthday treat we took to school to share with our class. My sister, in the unfortunate position of sharing a birthday with Mike Snyder, found herself in a yearly treat war: Each tried to outdo the other. Giant chocolate chip cookie lollipops, made by baking the cookies with tongue depressors in them and cupcakes baked into the tops of ice cream cones were among the inventive treats my mom thought up.

My birthday treat was simpler and always the same: snickerdoodles. I'm not sure which I liked more, the name of these cookies or their taste. They have an unusual flavor owing to an unusual ingredient — cream of tartar — which offers a slightly sour taste, offset by the final step before baking of rolling the dough balls in sugar and cinnamon. The result is a cookie more complex in flavor than your average sugar or chocolate chip. Whatever the allure, this was the cookie that accompanied me in numbers of 26 or 28 one year, to the classrooms of Mrs. Schimpf, Mrs. Piatt, Miss Gates and Mrs. Jones.

But those were the good years, and it was pretty much downhill for awhile. My parents divorced when I was in grade school, and my mother entered her anti-kitchen stage, from which she has not yet fully recovered. Birthdays, when they were remembered at all, brought her infamous Ho-Ho cakes: a last-minute stop at Cornell's IGA for a box of the Hostess cake rolls. She ripped off each and every shiny silver wrapper, arranged them on a plate in a pyramid and placed a candle in the top Ho-Ho.

On the other hand, my father, who, as my mother pointed out, didn't have the day-to-day of three kids to take care of, had taken up quite nicely in the kitchen. He could be depended on each year for a decidedly adult-in-flavor ambrosia or cherry chip cake.

My stepfather, once he entered the picture, saved the birthday by granting each kid dinner at the restaurant of his or her choice. I remember choosing Frankie's one year because I loved their salads, topped with thick pieces of hand-grated mozzarella. And my sister still teases me for my love of Ponderosa, which I frequently chose because I loved their French dressing and rolls.

In college, the drink took over for birthdays 19, 20 and finally 21. We were too poor to go out to eat and too busy finding someone who might help us get a case or two of something cheap.

This wore off once our own IDs would suffice, and food returned to the birthday scene in the form of the hors d'oeuvre. The Saturday before each birthday was spent in preparation for the evening's party. There were cucumbers to slice and mini-pumpernickel loaves to buy. New recipes would be served up next to old stand-bys — spiced nuts, cucumber dill sandwiches, and hummus, once I learned to get the consistency right.

Now that I'm a nine-to-fiver and my friends all seem to be coupling up, it's birthday dinner at a fancy restaurant, the definition of which goes up about $5 per person annually. As the eve of the Capricorn/Aquarius cusp draws near, the question for me isn't what will I get this year. It's what will I get to eat? ©

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