May 24. My birthday. I needn’t count them anymore; I don’t anticipate presents or cake or a party, but I still like my day. Something about feeling like a kid again. Such a beautiful time of year – I may be biased, but the weather always feels perfect on this day. The smell of lilacs in early summer heat, fresh, not sticky with humidity yet. The grass and trees budding that uniquely spring saturated green under high clear sunshine, not the wilted dusty late summer colours. Mosquitoes? Not yet, not too many. Yes, and always around a long weekend, Victoria Day, May 2-4, the first long weekend of the summer. When I was a child, I thought the holiday was for me, for my birthday. Six decades later, I still secretly pretend I’m special on this day.
Instead of getting presents, I’d like to share another excerpt from my new book, “First We Eat. Food, Life, and More Stories” by Michele Sabad, author of “Camp Follower One Army Brat’s Story” A story about, what else, birthday cake.
“I grew up with the idea that dessert was something special, not a regular thing. For birthdays, for example, with the birthday-ee getting to pick what kind of cake Mom would make. Chocolate, especially Black Forest Cake, was popular, but I requested angel food cake, with whipped cream (Ah, those pre-dairy-problem days of youth!) and strawberries. Canned frozen strawberries made watery extra sauce which the spongy angel food would absorb into a nice pink cake bite. Use the cake as bread to mop it up. Dip a large swipe of whipped cream. Heavenly. (So, that’s how it got its name.) My favourite.
Most of our birthday cakes included money baked into the pieces: nickels, dimes, the occasional quarter. My husband’s family also did this. I did it earlier for my own children, but it seems to be a tradition that runs in streaks for some people, for some amount of time. I do plan to re-initiate it for my grandchildren, but will probably have to use loonies and toonies (Canadian one- and two-dollar coins) for them, as a quarter becomes the new nickel in our inflated generation. It is an interesting tradition, and trying to research the beginnings are slippery; many cultures mention some variation of it.
My preferred origin story is this one: In Greece, baking money into cakes or bread was done to celebrate St. Basil’s day, on January 1. St. Basil was an early influence in the Christian church, known for his work with the poor and underprivileged. My own theory, therefore, is that the money was put into bread and handed out to the poor who would certainly appreciate both the bread and the monetary handout. It’s a nice theory; how it got to birthday cakes for middle class kids is why I enjoy questioning food traditions. There’s always an interesting story behind them. In fact, some people also bake a non-monetary item into their cakes, like a button. Depending on the story you choose to believe and pass along, finding the button in your piece means either you are the fool, the sucker who didn’t get any money, or that it was the luckiest piece to get, being the one and only. My mother must have not wanted to risk one of her four kids not getting any money, hence, we never had the button in any of our birthday cakes. And whoever got only a nickel would always beg for another piece of cake, of course.”