Birthdays, Cakes and Celebrations

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Angry Bird Cake

As winter drags on in the Northeast, and snow seems to fall daily, birthday season has arrived in our family! When I was young, my spring birthday was the lone one in my family. My parents and brothers celebrated their birthdays in late summer and fall, while my birthday coincided with Passover. Then I met a guy who became my husband whose birthday fell in spring, and finally I had a birthday partner. Our oldest daughter was born in April; then we had a cluster of birthdays to celebrate, usually with dinner out or a birthday cake at home.

Forty years later, all thirteen birthdays in our immediate family, our daughters’, sons-in-laws’, and grandchildren’s birthdays fall between January 27 and August 5, which means thirteen celebratory events. Add Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Purim, Passover, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and three wedding anniversaries, and it seems like there is always a reason to celebrate and eat.

Birthday cakes are thought to date to the Middle Ages in Germany, where cake was used to celebrate the birthdays of young children in Kinderfesten. Elaborate icing, layers and decorations were introduced in the 17th century, but these special cakes were not affordable to the masses until the Industrial Revolution when the required ingredients became more available, and bakeries started offering pre-made cakes at lower prices due to advances in mass production. My grandparents owned five bakeries in NYC in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and I inherited a thick binder of bakery recipes, including a section on celebratory cakes.

A few years ago, my daughter perfected baking spectacular themed cakes. For a while we joked that baking was in our blood, our genes, as she was a natural at executing beautiful and delicious creations. As each birthday approached, often into the wee hours the night before a birthday, she and my son-in-law spent hours baking and sculpting cake and fondant. A second daughter joined the cake brigade, and as my grandchildren got older, they participated too, at least tasting the components. Themed cakes are fun to plan and execute, and the results are awesome!

However I also inherited from my grandparents a genetic predisposition to diabetes and autoimmune illness. This past year many members of our family have shifted away from gluten which has led to devising creative, gluten-free approaches to birthday celebrations.

In the past several weeks we celebrated birthdays with:

  • a pot of meatballs and chocolate mousse
  • gluten-free cupcakes and skewers of fruit
  • Chocolate fondue with skewered fruit for dipping

Our family birthday celebrations continue to center around food. I get it. Food and celebration are linked in cultures around the world, but maybe food-centered celebrations are meaningful because celebrants set aside time (often mealtime because of convenience, since we need to eat) to celebrate another year of growth or another milestone. Even with the focus on food, I think coming together in celebration has to be more meaningful, so I have started putting together a list (in progress) of non-food ways to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries:

  1. Tickets to a (Broadway) show or sporting event
  2. A surprise vacation
  3. A walk or hike with loved ones in nature (maybe at sunrise) where you renew your commitment to each other
  4. A dance party or other venue to move your body in celebration
  5. A drumming or musical improvisation party
  6. A shopping excursion with a favorite person (maybe someone who is willing to foot the bill)
  7. A family gathering to share memories and photos
  8. Handwritten notes to the birthday celebrant
  9. A family portrait
  10. A group art project
  11. Arrange to spend the day doing a volunteer activity with friends and family
  12. Gathering with friends of all ages to share life’s wisdom

Do you think food is integral to celebration? Have you ever not had a birthday cake on your birthday? Were you pleased or disappointed? I would love to hear your ideas for celebrating without food.