They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I’m sure that this is a sexist and outdated statement that isn’t necessarily accurate and offends many people, but I’m also sure that it’s true for my husband and probably my little boy. I asked Dr. Awesome once, back when he was still Mr. Awesome and we were not even engaged to be married, what it was that I did that made him feel most loved. I cozied up to him on my small apartment couch, inherited from my childhood and creaking with every shift in position, waiting to hear about how sweet, how thoughtful, how attentive and interesting a companion I was, in some effuse and elaborately romantic words. I was patient, I was helpful, I was kind, and I was going to hear it in multisyllables. (I have since far moderated my expectations.) He thought for three seconds and said, giving me a squeeze, “You make me biscuits.”
“What?” I sputtered, a little disappointed. But I tried again. “I mean, like, what ways do I make you feel special, like really you, not just anybody? What are the ways that you know I love you?”
And he gave a cozy little sigh and said, with all the love-light in his eyes that those first amazing new-romance months can bring, “You made me short ribs too.”
There you go.
Fast forward seven years, and we approach the Fourth Birthday of the first carbon copy of my man. I have mentioned the countless loaves of bread rendered unfit for other humans’ consumption by my little Boo. Exhibit A, half an hour after I pulled it from the pan:
He tore it apart and ate it with his bare hands while I had the gall to read a book to his sister on the couch.
In general I think food is an expression of love to Boo. But he’s not alone when birthday time rolls around. I don’t know why, but I think my children judge how much I love them by what kind of birthday cake they receive.
Why is this?
Other people’s kids get so excited for the grocery-store cake. And my Sally is overheard to say, “Their cake is store-bought, but ours tastes way better, doesn’t it, Mommy? I sure don’t want a store bought cake on MY birthday.” Perhaps she has heard me mutter things one too many times.
So, naturally, I have over-extended myself a bit in the past four or five years. Sally’s Baptism was celebrated with a coconut layer cake that was one of my crowning achievements. I actually baked a test cake first. This was brilliant because I got to eat it twice, although in retrospect, overly fussy in that anxious and exhausted new-mother way.
For Sally’s first birthday I baked two kinds of cupcakes. This was back when I thought the celebration of a baby’s First Birthday meant renting a room and covering everything in pink helium balloons. (These days, baby doesn’t get a party.) I served gluten-free carrot cakes and chocolate-chocolate cupcakes that were so amazing I can still taste the fudge when I think of them. I didn’t even let her do more than taste hers because she was my first baby and I was convinced cake would destroy her future ability to eat vegetables. (That was a ridiculous conclusion, because Sally eats almost all her vegetables, and she was my only baby not to throw her first-birthday cake on the floor. Boo refused to let any cake pass his lips. He also refuses to pass most vegetation that direction, too. The vote is split on Bitsy.)
For Sally’s second birthday Boo was only four weeks old, and although I made her a lovely, one-pan chocolate cake covered in seven-minute icing, I also declared a new and perpetual family rule: TWO-YEAR-OLDS DON’T GET PARTIES. At the time I thought I was saving myself some headache and establishing fairness for future progeny. Since then I have been to many parties of two-year-olds where the parents have clearly spent so much money, time, and effort for a toddler who is miserable and wants to hide the whole time. So this rule works really well for me.
When Boo was almost one and Sally was nearly three, I experienced that sense of guilt over things not being fair for subsequent siblings. I didn’t have the money to throw him a party just a month ahead of her third—all the guests would be the same, anyway! Yet I still hadn’t learned the lesson that simplicity is key. So we rented a room and “Sally and Boo’s First and Third Sock-Hop Spectacular” went out on LP-shaped invitations, costumes encouraged.
Oh, the fuss! Oh, the Pinteresting! Dr. Awesome and I dressed as Buddy Holly and a Bobbysockser. I made Sally a poodle skirt in ice blue felt with a picture of Elsa where the poodle should be, and we downloaded a playlist of The Chordettes, the Big Bopper, and Idina Menzel. Boo got a blue tie that said “First Birthday Boy” along with a cardigan sweater which really set him apart as a sweet, bald little Mr. Rogers. The chocolate-chocolate cakes made a comeback, this time sharing the spotlight with cookies-and-cream cupcakes I made by inserting an actual Oreo into the middle of each cup of from-scratch vanilla cake batter—yes, of course I whipped the egg whites separately—and frosted with cream cheese icing into which I had crumbled the rest of those Oreos. The two types of cupcakes were proudly displayed on cake stands I fashioned out of Goodwill LPs hot-glued to pink and blue malt-shop cups. My gosh it was cute. And dessert was to die for. And so very, very unbelievably fussy. But just wait for next year.
The following year Boo was two, and I had a pass thanks to my aforementioned Family Rule which has served me so well. He had no party, but I did knock out a sweet “Curious George” cake which was a single 9-inch round with cupcake ears. The frosting was two dark a chocolate in the end for a true George look, but the banana slices I used for eyes made my “monkey” cake look adorable.
That year we decided to host Sally’s party at the local nature center where they could provide a Naturalist and a real bunny. I thought a bunny cake would be easy-peasy-lemon-squeasy. But Sally had just one request, so she said. She wanted a cake where the cake is the skirt of a princess dress. The princess, of course, had to be Elsa. Except her best friend had already had such a cake the year before (from Safeway), so this year, Sally asserted, could she have an Elsa and an Anna?
What kind of an overachiever am I?
After the cookies-and-cream cupcakes which had caused me to gain ten pounds in a night, I had vowed henceforth to outsource dessert. But the Elsa cake was $40. I couldn’t afford $80 worth of cake, plus dolls. Fortunately, said best friend had both dolls, and was past her Frozen phase anyway, so I was able to borrow them. Then I bought that Wilton Princess Cake mold and box of Funfetti mix. Of course I’ll make her both cakes, I reasoned, I’ll save so much money this way and I’ll make it easier on myself by only making one of the cakes from scratch….
I can look back now and say, “Ha. Ha. Ha.”
The Wilton cake mold, in case you are wondering, doesn’t produce a skirt tall enough for an actual doll to stand in, if it cooks the skirt evenly at all. The Funfetti boxed mix, in case you are also wondering, is not sturdy enough to support the weight of a doll with her lower half wrapped in aluminum foil, and is too soft a cake to use in a mold. Rather than wake my daughter up at 9 pm to break this news to her when I realized it, I cracked open my (beloved, coverless 1976 edition of) The Joy of Cooking and said, “Irma, what is a good cake mix to put into a mold?”
And so of course I was up into the wee hours doing the whole damn thing from scratch. Because the mold failed completely and I ended up just carving skirts out of layer upon layer of 8-inch round cakes. Because I am psychotic. I mean, I love my children. I will say that The Night We Frosted Skirts ’til Two I look on as a defining moment in my marriage when I said to myself, In case you haven’t noticed yet, this man is wonderful. And you are nuts.
I thought the cakes looked OK at best. But the next morning I caught Sally downstairs, kneeling on the floor and staring into the rearranged refrigerator at the two 10-inch doll cakes which now were basically the only things to fit. I will never forget the hush of awe in her little voice when she said, “Oh mommy, they’re so pretty.”
So naturally that set my lesson learning back a little bit.
But the following year I told myself I would learn my lesson. I produced a beautiful “Trolley” cake for my little Mr. Roger’s fan for his Third Birthday, and casually asked only three little boys to the house. There was barely a decoration beyond that twizzler-and-M&M-covered cake, and it was just fine.
(It was two square cakes cut in half and stacked into a rectangle. In the layers were raspberry jam. No fuss. Just dowels.)
To my princess planning her “Paw Patrol Princess” tea party I firmly said, “No, I cannot make a Lookout Cake like Mr. Porter and the Pups on Paw Patrol. Get over it. Think of something that is round, or square, because that’s what you’re getting.” And yet…
I invited every girl in the preschool class. I decided that rather than spend my $300 renting a space for the party, I would spend that money on housecleaners to deep clean my house and have the party at home. I asked Princess Buttercup from babycostsmoney to play Cinderella and I made her a dress for the role. (She was great. It was awesome. I’m still nuts.) I moved every piece of furniture that wasn’t the couch or the dining table upstairs and out of the way and organized the two-hour party around three “Centers” where the little “princesses” (split among three groups based on the tulle that adorned their princess party hats) could experience party games, tea with Cinderella, and a make-your-own-teacup craft in turns. I did this all because I thought it was what my Princess wanted me to do. And I made her a 5-layer chocolate cake with pink frosting, decorated with M&M flowers, because she had asked for five layers because she was five…but secretly, I think it was because she knew Boo’s trolley cake had four, and she needed to have more than him. And as I carried that towering pink confection into a room full of little girls about to sing “Happy Birthday” and witnessed my little princess have a complete meltdown like a strung-out bride on her wedding day, I finally learned my lesson.
This year, for Boo’s Fourth birthday, he asked me for “a huge tall wedding cake!” He asked several times. I think in his mind he recalled those five pink layers of Sally’s, and like his sister last year, needs to have more cake than the sibling. He needs to have the biggest, best cake I can make. But I put my foot down. (Sort of.) “Think round cake pans.” I said. I showed him some simple cat-in-the-hat cakes online. “No,” he said, “I want a big huge wedding cake!”
So we compromised.
Because that’s what lasting love is all about.