The perfect birthday cake in children’s books may appear in the last chapter of Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona (1955). Beezus, who has just turned ten, is sitting in the living room reading one of her presents, breathing in the vanilla scent of birthday cake in the oven. The moment could not possibly last with Ramona underfoot. That afternoon the four-year-old menace succeeds in sabotaging not one, but two birthday cakes. The day is saved when Aunt Bee picks up a fancy decorated cake from the best bakery in town to replace the eggy homemade yellow layer cake.
Whether or not we consider ourselves foodies, we are a lot more sophisticated about foodways than Beezus was in the 1950s. She probably took it for granted that birthdays had always been celebrated at a family party with a fancy cake for dessert. But the traditions surrounding birthdays are not all that well documented. When Ramin Ganeshram’s controversial picture book A Birthday Cake for George Washington was recalled in January 2016, I made a beeline for the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets to read up on the aubjuect of festive cakes. I came away with the impression that the there is still a great deal to be learned about them, especially the birthday cake. On a hunch that children’s books will be a valuable source of information on the history of birthday cakes, I’ve begun saving in a folder descriptions, stories, and illustrations of cakes and celebrations, a few of which I’ll highlight here..
Here’s a picture of a mid-nineteenth-century celebration of a young girl’s birthday. Mamma in her spotless apron is about to set the cake down on the table, loaded with glasses, carafes of wine, and other delicacies. The large, well-lit, elaborately furnished room is large enough for allow the guests to converse among themselves or to dance to the music provided by a obliging friend at the piano.
Modern birthday parties put different pressures on mothers. They may turn one book for planning the entertainments and to a manual for creating unforgettable cakes for the birthday boy or girl. The goal is an edible sculpture that should elicit “OOOOOs” and “AAAAAHHHHs” at its unveiling, not barely audible groans of “delicious” at the first forkful. These elaborate cakes take so much effort to make that it would be criminal to carve them up into slices and plate. These are objects to admire, not gobble up, because they are expressions of unconditional mother love and frustrated artistic urges. Child psychologists are probably already arguing against making little people go these places on their birthdays. Perhaps in addition to the highly gendered confection a second, less fancy cake that no one needs feel guilty consuming is provided.
There are picture books about birthdays by women authors that send up this female urge to decorate stupendous cakes. In Rosemary Wells’ Bunny Cakes, Ruby tries to make her little brother Max help her make their grandmother a birthday cake with raspberry fluff frosting bedizened with candles, silver stars, sugar hearts, and buttercream roses. Max is not exactly cooperative, having a brilliant idea of his own, which is, of course, a gross parody of Ruby’s. Being a good sport, Grandmother appreciates both mightily. Following Max’s cake, is this similar, but much more artistic birthday cake of worms and fruit made by a boy hedgehog.
Is this all modern decadence? Not likely. The elaborate modern birthday cake may be the descendant of the great plumb cakes (i.e. fruitcakes) prepared for Twelfth-Night parties. Here is a late eighteenth-century engraving of a splendid one illustrating the title page of a collection of songs to be sung at holiday festivities. The top of the cake is decorated with figures of all the characters listed on the title page and the sides are covered with ribbon swags, sprigs of leaves and other things which I guess are made of spun sugar. Notice that the cake is so large it has to be placed on a small table with finger holes in the legs so it is easy to transport from the kitchen to the drawing room.
What curious minds want to know is, when in the nineteenth century did the light layer cake supplant the heavy, rich, fruitcake covered with royal icing? A question for intense research!