Saturday, October 13, 2007

This English custom takes the cake

All of Julia's classmates have birthdays which fall between September and January, and as a result we are heavily into birthday party season around here these days. Julia came home from yet another party this afternoon with a butterfly painted on her face, sugar coursing through her veins and a goody bag which contained all of the usual suspects: a hair clip, some stickers, generic play dough, a hairbrush/mirror set and a smushed up slice of cake wrapped up in a napkin.

The first time that a piece of birthday cake made its way home to us in a goody bag this way, I was genuinely puzzled. Had the party gotten out of hand? Had the planned itinerary of birthday activities and games been too ambitious? Perhaps there was so much leftover cake that they were trying to get rid of it in any way that they could? Clearly, something must have gone wrong if the cake had not been consumed during the party as it should have been. "That poor party host," I thought, as I looked for an opportune moment to unobtrusively toss the unappetizing mess of smeared icing and crumbly cake into the bin.

Now that I am a veteran of the English birthday party circuit, I know better. I understand now that cake is rarely served at birthday parties here. I know that after the birthday child blows out the candles to much fanfare, the beautiful confection that no doubt cost a fortune will be sliced up and parceled out into unappetizing napkin-wrapped take home parcels.

What I don't understand... is why.


Anonymous Gretchen said...

That's odd to me, but then again so are some California customs. Here, they never actually open the presents at the party; everyone brings them and they're displayed on a table, but the birthday kid doesn't open them until after everyone has gone.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Iota said...

It's very odd isn't it? I think it's probably because the children are so full of food and over-excited by the time the cake appears, that they can't eat any of it. The lesson has been learned by experience, and no-one even bothers to put a piece on each child's plate, in order for it to be ignored and then put in the trash. But it's very odd, I agree. And the cake is totally inedible when it arrives home, all smashed and stuck to the napkin. I suppose at least you don't feel so bad about putting it in the trash as the hostess would!

The kids' birthday cakes which you buy in the UK are totally inedible anyway, even before being scrunched up in a napkin in a party bag. The icing is rock hard. The sponge is rubber. The jam in the middle is horrid. There is no redeeming feature. Imagine my joy when I found out that birthday cakes from Wal-Mart or Target are not only pretty to look at, but taste delicious too. Soft sponge, soft icing, even a pleasant taste. It makes all the sugar-induced behaviour almost worth it.

The downside to birthdays here is that a lot of people have parties at Chuck E Cheeze's. Oh dear. Even a delicious cake can't make up for that...

12:58 AM  
Blogger AnGlOpHiLe FoOtBaLl FaNaTiC said...

Huh? If it must be done that way (and I think it's silly!), why don't they invest just a few more pounds into those cute little confectionary boxes? Then, there would be no crumbling. And, all of the b-days are in the fall to early winter? Wow. That's expensive!

2:17 AM  
Anonymous Cami said...

I think Iota is right on all counts. Birthday cake generally is awful so maybe it's the best way to avoid eating it.

Wrapping up the cake is on my "mysteries of the UK" list as well. I wonder how wedding cake is dealt with?

2:38 AM  
Blogger Caroline in Rome said...

I have come to the conclusion that birthday parties are very culturally driven indeed. In France, you drop off your kid and come back in two hours. In Italy, you stay the whole two hours. And everyone single child in the class is invited, plus any siblings. I prefer the French way. One thing I like about the Italian way is that kids rarely open the presents at the party. I was fortunate enough to give birth to the Bambina in August, so she gets her birthday party organized by Club Med on the beach. Suits me just fine.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Iota said...

Wedding cake, Cami, is served and eaten at the wedding, after the meal, with champagne, during the speeches. Usually. The cutting of the cake by the bride and groom is ceremonial, and often at an odd time because the photographer wants to fit it in, or I suppose the catering staff need time to cut it up into pieces to serve it. So it is often done before the meal. Another oddity.

It used to be a tradition that you would mail(!) a piece of the cake to anyone who had been invited to the wedding who hadn't been able to come. They have little boxes for that. I think that still happens, but not so much as it used to. As wedding cake is heavy fruit cake with solid icing, it withstands being mailed in a little cardboard box remarkably well (even in a postal strike, I would guess!) Wedding cake lasts for ages, and it is traditional to keep the top tier to use as a christening cake - re-iced if necessary - for the first baby. We tried that, but 18 months later it was totally dried out and inedible. I wish someone had told us to freeze it, instead of trusting in an airtight tupperware container.

4:34 PM  
Blogger mk said...

I agree with AFF...the first thing I thought after reading this was, "Why don't they just get those cute little confectionary boxes to put the cake in, rather than sending it home in a smashed-up mess that the poor parent then has to clean up/throw away/etc.?" Oh well...

And, if the cake is, indeed, just not very tasty, why serve it at all?

Maybe you can start a whole new custom there! Either get the cute boxes or serve really GOOD cake that the kids want to eat right at the party! :)

2:11 PM  
Blogger Patois said...

My first thought was that it was to be placed under the pillow and slept upon, a la the bridal cake? The person you dream of is the person you marry. Hardly makes sense for the age set, though.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

But seriously...why??


2:38 AM  
Blogger Pacha said...

British birthday cake is the best! :) Im in California now and I'm trying to find someone who makes them over here for my sons birthday. No luck so far :(

In the UK I remember eating cake during the party then if any is left over the kids take some home.

2:43 AM  
Blogger Tubs said...

We always used to eat party food at the party, like pizza and sausage rolls and crisps, plus little cakes and biscuits and things, and then the birthday cake would be 'done'- so Happy Birthday was sung, the candles blown out by the birthday girl/boy, and then relit and blown out by everyone. Then Mum would cut it and put slices into the party bags, leaving the rest for us, and that was the end of the party. Usually, some of the parents had turned up by the time we got to the cake.

I think part of it was that we ate so much other stuff that you wouldn't want to have to save a space for cake or miss out. Peeking into the napkin to see which bit you got was always exciting, as was unwrapping it to eat the next day. If it arrived home smashed, it was your fault for not carefully carrying the party bag like a treasure! It would still be delicious all smushed up. Tasted like parties and victory.

A napkin, although it may not look pristine, isn't going to permanently damage anyone, and keeps it from looking overly try-hard. From what I have experienced here, we are much less into the perfectly themed parties and more into a general mish mash of party games and running around and any food. If I was at somebody's house and taking home food, if they suddenly whipped out some purpose made cardboard concoction rather than a tupperware or bit o' tinfoil I would be alarmed!

Just remember that the soggy napkin-wrapped cake may look unappetising to you, but to a child it is a. still part of the party, b. cake therefore awesome, and c. cake therefore awesome! Probably delicious too.

5:58 PM  

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