Our Eating Lives features stories about how food, cooking, and eating have shaped who we are and how we live.
This is a guest post from Tess Wilson. Tess is an enthusiastic cook, a longtime Apartment Therapy contributor, and the pastry assistant for the Blue Bottle Coffee/SFMOMA Modern Art Desserts project.
Image by Tess Wilson
We were awakened by the words “The seven is falling over”, the birthday boy’s voice muffled, as he was licking cream cheese frosting off of his finger (you can see a telltale swipe or two, above). I’d made the carrot cake- his current favorite- the day before without him noticing, frosted it after he went to bed, and stuck it in the fridge to chill while the adults stayed up late drinking beer and playing a few heated games of Qwirkle. Just before we went to sleep, I decorated the kitchen table with confetti and champagne poppers and presents, hung a homemade banner from the light fixture, and placed the candled cake in the middle of it all. We don’t own a proper cakestand, but my cake decorating turntable filled in nicely, and might have been the part that impressed the newly-7-year-old the most: “It spins!”
There are people out there who would tell you not to leave a cake out on the table overnight, but I don’t fraternize with any of them. I knew there wouldn’t be very many hours between our late bedtime and his inevitably early rising, the cake and frosting were actually vegan (though I would have done the same even if they weren’t), and the most important part of the birthday breakfast table is that it’s the first thing you see in your new year. I could have waited until we were all gathered for breakfast to present the cake, given him the presents one by one, and surreptitiously thrown the confetti at him as he was trying to eat (I will definitely do that one next year), and that all would have been lovely. What I was after was a bit of magic, to give him that thrilling feeling of Your birthday came in the night. I also wanted to give him the gift- and responsibility- of choice. You don’t leave a little kid alone with a cake unless you’re willing to admit that he might eat the whole damn thing. He could have let us sleep, feasting on cake and opening all his presents without us, and though I would have been sad not to watch him do it, I was fine either way. It was, after all, his birthday.
I was raised with the tradition of breakfast table birthdays, a bit of magic my darling mother gave me every year I lived at home. I would stumble down the stairs to our old-fashioned kitchen, where the heat valiantly battled the freezing January air that did its best to find a way in. The table was always decorated, always different, and I would give a lot to have a photo of each of those tables. If my birthday fell on a school day, I might find my usual bowl of cereal, and right next to it, the vitamins my dad always set out for me. There would be a present, just something little, and a handmade card. On weekend birthdays, breakfast would be more elaborate, something freshly baked accompanied by plenty of fruit and hot chocolate. Those mornings were always that wonderful combination of tradition and surprise: I guessed that there might be a birthday breakfast table, but even so, a year is a long time and it was easy to forget how wonderful it felt to see that table, first thing in the morning.
No matter what else happens on a birthday, if school is hard or your party is overwhelming or you didn’t get the gifts you were hoping for or nobody knows it’s your birthday or the fact that it is your birthday makes the everyday stresses seem so much worse, the birthday breakfast celebration means that you’ve already had a wonderful birthday. If the rest of the festivities are great, well, so much the better, and if they’re not, well, you know you’re loved and you had cake for breakfast.
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