This essay was selected for Birthday episode of Read650, where writers read, if you prefer to listen. I’m about 17 min in, and highly recommend not just my story, but all the stories. ~klm
Dad’s giant, fat finger slices through the smooth, silky frosting; doesn’t matter whose birthday it is. My dad bends to table level, his thick glasses and bushy beard inches from the cake, whispering to kids huddled around him:
“Gotta make sure it’s not rotten.”
Then he swipes one fat, calloused finger through the icing and jams it into his mouth, silently contemplating his palate, before roaring:
“Y-y-y-u-u-U-P, deeeee-LISH! It’s a good one!”
We turned this tradition into a verb, Miking the Cake, and now that he’s long gone, the kids he taught to Mike-the-Cake have kids of their own, and instead of crying if someone sticks their fingers into Carvel Fudgie the Whale, or sticky-sweet funfetti cakes, they fight over who gets to do the miking, the traditional family taste-test, before songs can be sung, and cake can be cut.
Gross? Maybe – definitely now in the era of covid.
I didn’t grow up with dessert at every meal, but always on birthdays, with loud, obnoxious singing, fingers sticky with frosting, and everyone huffing and puffing to extinguish candy-colored candles.
Are we still blowing out candles, in this pandemic party era?
I think not, but once upon a time, for birthdays not so long ago, blowing out candles on the communal cake was customary.
In our house, recycled candles were pulled from the icing, their waxy bottoms licked clean before being tucked back into the plastic coffin container, faded and grimy with years of forced labor, then slid under the spice rack, dormant until the next celebration.
Reusing the same candles, year after year
These melted but good-enough candles waited patiently for the next birthday song, when fat fingers miked a cake to confirm it was, indeed, good enough, and pictures were snapped to be added to a fridge covered with itty-bitty magnets pinning down happy memories.
Sometimes the cake was fresh from the bakery, fancy in a white box with a window on the top where you could see Happy Birthday written in curlicued script and delicate, icing roses with pastel petals that tasted as good as they looked. We’d cross and double-cross our fingers calling dibs on the flowers, after the cake was Miked.
When I was a little girl, I remember visiting Aunt Florence in Florida, and we brought a fancy bakery cake, and one bite in, Uncle George, her three-pack-a-day husband didn’t even look up from his plate when talking with his mouth full, muttered, ‘Not bad for boxed.’
“Not bad for boxed.”
I didn’t know there were other options.
My future mother-in-law did.
Visiting upstate, I never show up empty-handed, I was raised better than that, and for years I brought baked goods.
Instead, I took goodies from their white boxes with red twine, and arranged them on my own plates, breaking off little pieces so they looked homemade, before covering with saran wrap and presenting as an offering, silently praying, “please like me.”
She’d take a taste, and with zero hesitation, mumble,“Not bad for store-bought,” not once or twice, but many times, brushing crumbs from her fingers. It wasn’t an insult, I don’t think, just an observation, but I couldn’t help but be embarrassed at my bakery blunder to win her affection.
Not bad for store-bought.
I had hoped my treats would win me a spot on her fridge, where she displayed favorite sons and favorite spouses; my photo nowhere to be found, even many years later.
Instead, birthday after birthday, candles were lit, songs song, but no one stuck their fingers in the cake at their house, and I can’t help but notice, despite everything homemade, it never felt very homey.
Make a wish, they say.
And I do.
For birthdays of sticky fingers and loud laughter and crying children mad they didn’t get the rose, and plenty of hugs and dirty dishes – the family crumbs that prove happiness is always homemade, whether it comes from the store or not.
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