(Julia Turshen [@turshen on Instagram] is offering food writing classes via Instagram Live with prompts and special guests M – F 2 PM EST while everyone’s at home due to COVID-19. These are my responses to her prompts.)
Prompt for Thurs. 3/19: Imagine today is your birthday. What would you like to eat to celebrate? Why is this special? Who would you want to share it with?
Up until the years when both my brother and I finally moved out of the house and to our boarding school in rural Wisconsin, we had celebrated our birthdays with a single cake lain on a low table in front of our couch. Every year, we’d put on our good clothes (shirts mostly tucked in), sit next to each other on that couch facing my dad’s old camera and camcorder, sang “Happy Birthday” once, took photos, and proceeded to watch whatever movie was on TV. It’s not like we were cake-loving family per se. It took us more than a week to polish off that single cake and we only ever ate a sliver of a serving in each sitting including the actual birthday.
The cakes themselves started off as my mom’s guesswork, a patchwork of graham crackers, uneven frosting, random marshmallows, and whatever topping she could throw on top that gave it the semblance of a cake. The cakes were always low and rectangular since they had to fit in the tiny tabletop oven that doubled as our grill and were more a testament to my mother’s ingenuity than her baking prowess. In later years, her cakes were substituted by the more convenient and much neater blueberry cheesecakes from the bakery next door. These days I prefer ice cream to cake and looking back, I hardly recall any of the cakes as being particularly memorable. But perhaps that wasn’t the point.
The dressing up, the meticulous angling of the cameras, our refusal to sit still, the whole performance that ended with a barely eaten cake became a tradition only our family partook in (except for the one year my dad finally parted with his money and rented the local Jollibee – the Filipino McDonald’s and the fine folks who brought you the Chicken Joy – for a once-in-a-childhood party). My parents cared more for the marking of time and tradition than the usual trappings of a birthday. Even gifts weren’t a thing and my mom once had to pass me a pint of Baskin Robbins ice cream in secret so my dad wouldn’t go into one of his lectures on frugality. “You have a roof on your head, clothes on your back, food on the table! Everyday’s your birthday!”. Words lost on a child who was always looking to the families next door.
With my 30th birthday coming up and as I sit here in self-quarantine, those words have come back in an unexpected way. I do imagine that if today were my birthday, I’d want to share trays of oysters, foie gras on toast, butter on everything, and bottles of champagne with friends and anyone who’d come. But the fact that I still have a roof over my head, clothes on my back, and food on the table is cause enough for celebration. I suppose a simple blueberry cheesecake and the knowledge that my family makes it through this would be enough.
A bottle of champagne would be nice too.