West Versus East: The Birthday Edition (#219)

In my childhood house of a thousand siblings, there was only one day more exciting than Christmas.

My birthday.

On my birthday, I got to sit at the head of the breakfast table and preside over a plate of powdered doughnuts with candles. Powdered doughnuts might not seem very exciting compared to the Krispy Kremes and Voodoo doughnut delicacies of today, but back then they were a huge treat. Especially to a kid in a big family on a budget.

I also got a pile of presents (i.e., three). If there was a birthday cake later (or brownies, in the leaner years), I got the first piece. And I got seconds.

I got the front seat in the car.

For an entire day, the overlooked middle child was seen.

And I was queen. And it was good.

This is how I thought all birthdays should be. But as Australian-Asian blogger Mabel recently pointed out, every culture and every person is a little different when it comes to birthdays.

My husband Andy came from a Chinese-American family. He was the oldest boy, which meant he got most of the attention and food. As his family actually practiced family planning, he had enough food, too.

But birthdays and holidays? Nope. Andy remembers exactly one shocking Christmas with a tree and a ton of presents. He was sure Santa had made a mistake until his mom told him to open his gifts. Andy’s family never wasted money on pumpkins, turkeys, or Easter Baskets, either.

And birthdays? Andy’s grandmother, Popo, who grew up in China before the Communists took over, told him that it was better not to celebrate birthdays. “If you celebrate your birthday,” she explained, “evil spirits will take notice, realize you are still alive. Then perhaps they will remedy that situation.”

The first year we were a couple, I asked Andy want he wanted to do on his birthday.

Andy shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.”

I was aghast. “It matters! It’s your birthday! You get to pick everything we do!”

“Really? I pick sex.”

I rolled my eyes and explained, “No, I mean, do you want to go out for dinner? Do you want me to surprise you or pick your favorite place? And what kind of cake do you want?”

“Uh, any cake that’s not from a grocery store,” Andy said.

“Are you kidding? I would NEVER! Who does that?”

“My mom. For my eighteenth birthday, she called me at work and told me to grab any kind of cake at Foodland on my way home.”

“I didn’t even have YOUR NAME ON IT?!” I screeched.

“Nope.”

My horror was complete. That year, and every year after, I made Andy a cake. From scratch. I even bought a Wilton cake-decorating set so I could write “Happy Birthday Andy” on it in my own icing, rather than the bitter frosting tubes from the grocery store.

Leveling the layers of Devil’s food (about hour 3)

Andy’s favorite was the three-layer Devil’s food cake with poured ganache frosting. For short, we called it six-hour cake, because that’s how long it took to make the sucker. Every year, Andy would say, “No, no, you’re busy, it’s okay, you don’t have to!”

And every year, I’d think of his 18th birthday cake from Foodland and reply, “Oh yes I do.”

Post-crumb coat, mid-pour of ganache (about hour 5)

The first few years, I invited friends over to celebrate. Then I added his cousins and Aunt and Uncle. One year his brother was even in town, and he also joined us.

The following year, when I asked what he wanted to do, Andy asked, “Please can we have a party for just us?”

“You sure that doesn’t seem boring? You won’t get as many good presents.”

Andy snorted and said, “Their presents aren’t THAT good. And last year there was hardly any leftover cake!”

“Wait. It’s the cake? You just don’t want to share your cake?!”

Andy mumbled, “Well, it’s really good cake. And it’s not THEIR birthday. They don’t deserve that cake.”

Now we celebrate Andy’s birthday alone and Andy eats his cake for a week.

And he is king.

And it is good.

Warning: Slow Cook in the Kitchen (#203)

My kitchen at the height of Baking Season: Christmas.

When we get new neighbors, I usually take them a plate of baked goods. If they’re lucky, the newbies moved in between October and December, which my husband dubbed “Baking Season.” Baking Season starts with cream cheese sugar cookies shaped like fall leaves and moves onto maple cream pie, apple pie, maple sugar rugelach, and candy cane meringues.

The new neighbors usually bring back an empty plate and sexist mouthful of compliments. “You’re a fantastic cook! Your husband is so lucky!”

Continue reading Warning: Slow Cook in the Kitchen (#203)

Cooking & Competition (#198)

My neighborhood has an annual Labor Day cooking contest. The hostess decides on the type of food, the neighbors cook up their best dishes, and everyone at the party votes for their favorite. The year we moved in, the competition was for the best homemade salsa.

I’m competitive as hell, but I’m not a good cook. Luckily, my husband is an excellent cook, and he makes an amazing homemade salsa.

“Ha-ha,” I carolled. “They may as well hand over that prize now!” Continue reading Cooking & Competition (#198)

Chocolate Thievery (#186)

A big family and not quite enough food can mess you up for life. My sisters and I learned to eat fast, hunching protectively over our plates. But no matter how fast we ate, Big Brother would finish first. Then he’d inevitably loom over us, asking, “Are you gonna eat that?”

If our mouths were too full to answer, he’d take that as a no.

Fork duels ensued. Continue reading Chocolate Thievery (#186)

Over the Moon (#147)

My Chinese-American husband grew up in Hawaii, then moved to Los Angeles. Not only did he not care about different seasons, I’m not even sure he knew what they were until I took him to New Hampshire and Washington D.C.

His immigrant family wasn’t big on holidays, either, whether American or Chinese. The man didn’t even have a Christmas stocking until I gave him one. Continue reading Over the Moon (#147)

Cakes & Bellwethers (#138)

When I started working as an assistant for the Empress of International Film and Television Sales, it was a temp job, to make ends meet while I tried to make it as a screenwriter. But the Empress was soon addicted to my organizational skills. I was soon addicted to my paycheck and health insurance.

I worked long hours. In at 7-8 AM to deal with Europe, out at 7-8 PM after dealing with Asia. Right before film markets, the hours were even longer. At film markets and festivals, you were on duty 24-7. There were perks, though. Tables at the best restaurants had to be booked months in advance, with a deposit. If my boss got invited elsewhere, guess who got the pre-paid table? Me, and three friends. Sometimes it was me and some random people I’d literally just met. Continue reading Cakes & Bellwethers (#138)

Me Neither (#75)

When will the bride and groom get to enjoy some of their own wedding cuisine in peace?
When will the bride and groom get to enjoy some of their own wedding cuisine in peace? When pigs fly, of course.

Married persons —

Do you remember all the lovely food at your wedding? The cuisine that you carefully selected in advance? The hors d’oeuvres of bacon-wrapped scallops, chicken satay, or asparagus goat cheese brioche? Can you recall the taste of the prime rib, or the mushroom ravioli?

Yeah, me neither. Continue reading Me Neither (#75)

A Question of Cake (#49)

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I love cake. Okay, I love all baked goods, but cake is the best. It was my favorite part of all my parents’ weddings. It’s STILL my favorite part of every wedding. I do enjoy the dancing now that I bring my own partner, but while I’m dancing with Andy, I’m totally eyeing that four-tiered, fabulous, elaborate, fondant-covered wedding cake in the corner. Continue reading A Question of Cake (#49)