Can cake be considered an Ancestral Dish? Somehow it doesn’t seem — serious enough. Yet what other food screams family ritual like cake? So I’m going to say it qualifies.
As a child, I looked forward to July and August — the Birthday Big Time, with two family birthdays in each month. To that I can now add my oldest child, another August baby. Five summer birthdays. Cake Central, here we come!
Cake has gone glitzy lately. My kids and I love to gape occasionally at Cupcake Wars or Cake Boss (starring Hoboken’s own Buddy Valastro). Who isn’t in awe of those monumental cakes? But at the same time, they’re so … unapproachable. Fondant looks gorgeous, but is hardly the sort of icing you’d claw your siblings aside to lick from the bowl.
Cake has been the exclamation point on my tribe’s rites of passage, secular and spiritual. You can’t really have an official First Holy Communion or baptism without a sheet cake. Not to mention the ritual of immortalizing the cake in a snapshot before it’s devoured: Look! Here it was! Wasn’t it GREAT?
This month I made myself a fabulous birthday cake, mmm yes I did. It got me to thinking about other cakes my family has shared and fought over from decade to decade. A pictorial history awaits!
But before I start, I must say this:
The best part of cake is sneaking downstairs in the dead of night after everyone’s gone to bed and snatching the last slice from under the cake dome. Quietly. With a tall glass of cold milk on the side.
Cake No. 1: This is a bridal shower given for my mother by her future sisters-in-law, in 1953. A corsage is required to make things official, along with the cake. I love that wide circular cake. For some reason, you don’t see big circles these days as much as you do rectangular sheets.
Cake No. 2: My eleventh birthday cake, upon which I believe I collaborated with my older sister. We neglected to get the all-important Cake Snapshot before the family fell upon it. Note the glass milk bottles on the table, kids. That stuff is 20th century, that is.
Cake No. 3: Another shower cake. This one was for a baby shower my co-workers gave me when I was pregnant with my oldest. It was a lovely party, but I have to confess, the baby figure on the cake scared me a little.
Cake No. 4: Life then segued into a series of cakes that reflected kids’ obsessions. This train cake was for my older daughter, Nora, during her Thomas the Tank Engine toddlerhood. It is not really a cake per se, but an artfully arranged collection of cookies, wafers, licorice and frosting. Take that, Cake Boss.
Cake No. 5: Kid Obsession No. 2: Earlier this year my younger daughter fell in love with la belle France and decided upon a Parisian-themed birthday party, despite the fact that neither of us really knows French. I served pommes frites, among other things. And I put a French word on the birthday cake.
Cake No. 6: For my own birthday a couple of weeks ago, I was determined to make myself a Devil Dog cake — a giant-sized version of a treat commonly available in the northeastern U.S. that was the Platonic ideal of snack cakes in my childhood. Two rich devil’s-food layers plus one batch of marshmallow frosting later, I had my dream.
As is often the case with cakes and dreams, it did not last long. But there’s always next year.
Originally this post was a bit of a screech.
In “Who’s on the Family Tree? Now It’s Complicated,” the New York Times mused upon genealogy in the post-test-tube-baby age. Marian at Roots and Rambles also noticed this article, and pointed out its very interesting finding that birth certificate questionnaires are starting to catch up to the new realities, including questions on reproductive technology. Which was all good.
But something about the tone of the piece got under my skin. I really was irritated by the sense that the Times team found the new family realities kind of … icky, messing up the genealogy software and the school family tree projects and all that.
Thus, I ran on for a bit. Great length ensued.
I decided to reflect a bit more. I am still irritated, but at least I am able to boil my original post down to much shorter bullet points:
• The piece was largely written from the assumption that the default family-study mode must be mommy+daddy+bio baby. In reality, genealogical studies almost by definition branch out into collateral kin and relationships through marriage and adoption. That is nothing new. Reproductive technologies are new, but is it so hard to encompass them within existing research techniques? Somehow I don’t think it would take that much imagination.
• Related: The piece ramps up a wistful nostalgia for a good old days in which we never had out-of-the-box genealogy cases. Nice try, but family realities (and cultural taboos) have been warring with the family tree forms for quite a long time. For instance, without formal record-keeping prior to the 19th century, adoptions often are inferred, but of course they are there. As seasoned researchers often point out, a strikingly “late in life” baby who pops up in a census might have been birthed by someone other than the listed mother. I would think a matter-of-fact approach to the newer, technological realities would only help us by helping us be more expansive and forthright about our trees.
• I do think the Times was onto something with the observation that “Some families now organize their family tree into two separate histories: genetic and emotional. “ If you’re doing this work to get into the DAR or a similar lineage society, you’re going to be approaching things differently from a person who sees themselves purely as a family chronicler. When you deal with the lineage societies, it’s a matter of their group, their rules.
• But I think the basic genealogy techniques of researching, citing and reporting remain the same, either way.
• Maybe the essential question is not “How do I fit my sperm-donor baby on my tree if my software doesn’t have a spot for that?” The deeper question is whether we’re comfortable with the way our families came to be, and whether we’re willing to stick up for that.
• If not, maybe family history research is something to be avoided. But I would find that outcome sad.
I live in New Jersey, where summer vacation has barely started at the time the Midwest is beginning its back-to-school shopping. Yeah, it’s high summer here. We aren’t even thinking about Office Depot for another four weeks. A brief news digest will surely show what I mean:
• I am a Bastille Day baby. I have always enjoyed my stylish birthday! When I was younger and footloose I often went to French restaurants to celebrate. This year, I made my own cake, over my daughters’ objections. (Before you start to awwww and assume they were devastated at not being able to bake for me, they were actually pushing for a Carvel ice cream cake.) It was a Devil Dog cake, recipe courtesy of Deb at Smitten Kitchen. More on birthday cake later, in a family history sort of post, even.
• I saw the New York Times story on family trees in the age of reproductive technology, had some thoughts and wrote a post which I’ve been mulling over to make sure my thoughts still hold up. I will post it, but for now I’ll just say I hate pseudo-trend pieces in the lifestyle section of the Times, for what it’s worth.
• I just discovered The Diamond in the Window, a wonderful blog about children’s literature. What’s really great are the thoughtful recommendations passed along by the blogger’s own daughters, aged 11 and 9. I predict this blog will give me many answers on frustrating rainy summer days.
• Played around with PowerPoint to make a simple, hierarchical family tree for a core group I’ve been researching among my paternal lines. I’ve been thinking of summarizing some of this research in a narrative to send around in Christmas cards to extended family, and the family tree diagram would be a visual aid. Doesn’t this sound like the sort of thing that would get me dropped from Christmas card lists?
• Went to the beach here. And here. Before you ask: Snooki is nowhere to be seen, and indeed, unless the Jersey Shore crowd likes string cheese and juice boxes for lunch, they would be quite out of place at these beaches.
• Am teaching Latin and German to my daughters. The Latin is for the older one, who needs to review for the fall, with the help of the Cambridge Latin series textbook. My long-ago, very basic high-school Latin is creaking back, hurray. The German lessons are something both kids have actually been asking about for some time. Their motives are not exactly pure — they are entirely too focused on determining whether a certain schoolmate and native German speaker is using swear words, for instance. Also, they have noticed that I sometimes talk with one of my sisters in German when we don’t want them to understand (we both majored in it in college, but sis is way better at it). It all adds up to a level of avid interest that’s touching, it really is.
But I still won’t teach them the swear words.