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Food + Cooking

The Kid’s Menu: Let Them Eat Cake

When it comes to baby’s first birthday, what’s wrong with a sweet, simple, made-from-scratch celebration—or two?
let them eat cake

My son turned one this summer, and we celebrated with two birthday parties. And somehow, this seemed very restrained.

At the first, on his actual birthday, we gathered both sets of grandparents, and spent the day letting Franklin do whatever he wanted, which essentially translated to helping him practice his walking for hours on end. I baked Rose Levy Beranbaum’s delightful banana cake from the Joy of Cooking and dusted it with powdered sugar. Franklin had a ball: He opened presents, was chased around by his grandmother, ate some cake, and threw up before bed. Seemed like a successful celebration. We thought we were done.

For decades before I had a child, I felt the pressure in the ether to throw elaborate children’s parties. I think I felt it as a child. Growing up in an unglamorous outer borough of New York City, parties were either low-key backyard events with pizza or giant submarine sandwiches, plastic bowls full of chips, and lots of two-liter bottles of soda (the three-liter bottle had yet to be invented); or else, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there were exclusive little group outings into Manhattan where we wore our best matching outfits and dined on hamburgers in a theme restaurant. (I won’t even expand on the irony of traveling into the heart of one of the planet’s best food cities to eat in a chain restaurant.) I have to say, the former parties were simply more fun—what kid do you know who wants to sit at a table for hours?—but the latter bore a greater cachet even then; from the moment the invitation came in the mail, and you knew you were one of a select group, there would be that frisson of excitement and slight trepidation that I still get when I walk into a party.

Sitting behind a mother and daughter on a city bus years later, my stomach turned as I listened to them deliberate the baroque combinations of cake, filling, and frosting to choose for the daughter’s upcoming birthday party. Mind you, they weren’t talking chocolate or vanilla, but fancy flavors, like maple-walnut cake with vanilla Swiss meringue buttercream frosting. It was obvious from the way they talked what expensive bakery this cake would be coming from. And frankly, it’s good cake. But the process had an air about it that felt less like a little kid thinking dreamily of her favorite flavors than about what might sound more impressive to her guests.

On another occasion, I was lectured by the mother of a child model about how no one throws birthday parties at home or bakes their own birthday cakes anymore. (Ironically, this was as we broke for lunch on the set of a magazine shoot about homemade birthday parties.) She actually said these words: “Maybe they do it where you’re from, but not here.” “I’m from here,” I snapped back, perhaps inappropriately engaging her, not least of all because I had a feeling that she might be from somewhere else. “And my kids are getting homemade birthday parties, and I’ll be damned if I’m not baking their cakes myself.”

Needless to say, I carry a lot of baggage on the issue. So when we decided to throw a second party that would include Franklin’s playdate buddies, maybe it was overcompensation on my part to make it as low-key as possible. We invited people at the last minute, and served just the makings for ice cream sundaes, along with some Devil’s Food mini-cupcakes, again, unfrosted and dusted with powdered sugar (we are talking about cake for a bunch of toddlers, after all). The cupcakes looked a little funny, because I have no self-control and always overfill the cupcake pans, but they were fresh and moist and wonderful, and Franklin, who had been on a hunger strike that day, happily nibbled a few bites.

I don’t expect all the birthday parties in the future to be this simple; sooner or later, a kid’s going to start demanding some frosting. But I can only hope that through the years, our backyard parties convey what I think is important to our children: Home is a pretty good place to be, good friends are what make a celebration, and homemade cake is a slice of love—whether heaped with frosting or dusted with a little powdered sugar.