Birthday Foods

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BIRTHDAY FOODS. Food is almost always a significant part of the observance or celebration of a birthday in the Western world. It may play several roles: as refreshments for those attending a celebration; as a gift, such as a box of candy for the honoree; as sweets or cupcakes taken to school by the birthday child; or the candy in a piñata at a party. Families often have their own favorite festive food that is served on birthdays of family members, or a favorite food of the birthday celebrant will be served in his or her honor.

In some cultures, a birthday food is an important cultural symbol recognized by the entire community. Wheat noodles, a symbol of longevity, are stretched to great lengths and served in soup to birthday celebrants in Northern China. Another symbol of longevity there, the peach, appears for birthdays as a bun, shaped and colored like a peach, with a sweet paste filling.

Food may be offered to the gods as a part of the religious celebration of a birthday. In Thai communities it is taken to the temple on the birthday morning, to receive a birthday blessing from a monk. In Sri Lanka, children go to the temple on their birthdays to receive a special blessing and to give money to the priest for a special offering of a traditional food, such as rice porridge, to the gods. This is also shared with the family.

Other traditional festive foods include the French croquembouche, a cone-shaped tower of small cream puffs fastened together with caramel, or the Norwegian kransekaka, a pyramid of as many as twenty-six pastry rings, gradually decreasing in size from bottom to top, and iced and decorated. These may be part of a birthday celebration but are more likely to be the centerpiece for a wedding or, perhaps, a christening. In Korea, steamed rice cakes of various kinds, usually made of layers of ground rice alternating with a bean paste, are served on birthdays but also on other special days.

However, in many parts of the world and especially in the West and countries influenced by Western traditions, by far the most popular food for celebrating a birthday is the birthday cake, complete with decorative icing and glowing candles. In the United States, birthday cakes, especially for children, are essential to the celebration. The custom cuts across all economic, racial, and religious lines. Although elaborately decorated cakes also are used to mark events like weddings, farewell parties, and other major events, the birthday cake is distinctive because of its candles. Any depiction of a circle topped by a one or more candles is recognized at once as a birthday cake.

Birthday Celebrations

Birthdays of powerful and wealthy individuals have been celebrated for millennia. The Bible's book of Genesis (ch. 40:20) indicates that Egyptian pharaohs organized festive events around their birthdays and, according to Dalby and Grainger in The Classical Cookbook (p. 32), so did Romans in far-flung parts of the Empire. After the Middle Ages, birthdays began to be celebrated by others of wealth and position. Eventually, a growing middle class in the United States in the postCivil War period began to emulate the customs and manners of their more affluent fellow citizens.

Although there are a number of cultures in which birthdays are not observed, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, usually a birthday is regarded as a rite of passage marking an individual's progress through the life cycle. Certain points along the way may be regarded as more important than others: for example, a first birthday or a sixtieth for a Korean; a fifteenth for a girl in the Latino community or a sixteenth in some other cultures in the United States, a twenty-first, fiftieth, or seventy-fifth for an American, or any birthday year which ends in a zero for a Dane. For such occasions a cake with candles usually is considered essential and extraordinary efforts may be made to provide it. A birthday cake requires a social gathering and ordinarily would not be eaten without others being present.

Cakes and celebrations. The birthday cake tradition in the United States is little more than a century old, but the relationship of cakes and celebration has a much longer history. It was traditional in Roman times, especially for those reaching fifty years of age, to be feted with special cakes, according to Toussaint-Samat in History of Food (p. 32), but the cakes of Roman times, and for many centuries after, consisted mainly of cereal grain meal moistened with water or wine, and perhaps leavened with some form of yeast. Like small pancakes, they were baked on a griddle and picked up and eaten like cookies.

The Development of Modern Cakes

During the Middle Ages in Northern Europe there was little distinction made between bread and cake. Both were leavened with yeast and sweetness was not an important characteristic. Alan Davidson has written in The Oxford Companion to Food (p. 123) that it was not until the late fourteenth century in Europe that professional cooks were able to create immense yeast-leavened cakes filled with dried fruits for special occasions. In the sixteenth century, Italian and French pastry cooks began to develop lighter baked goods using batters based on egg-and-sugar foam instead of yeast. As their methods spread to other parts of Europe, cakes began to change rapidly, although still requiring a professional baker.

Chemical leavens. Leavening baked goods with chemical substances, particularly pearlash, a refined form of potash, was in use by professional bakers in Europe by the mid-seventeenth century, according to Witteveen in Petits Propos Culinaires #21 (pp. 6668). But pearlash, saleratus, ammonium carbonate, and other substances known as "yeast powders," also used by home cooks in the United States by the end of the eighteenth century, imparted an unpleasant taste, particularly to delicately flavored baked goods. In 1863 two pharmacists in Indiana finally succeeded in developing the right blend of baking soda and cream of tartar to produce baking powder. Much earlier in the nineteenth century, the cast iron stove had come into use, and as home bakers learned to employ it in concert with chemical leavens, the modern-day layer cake became possible.

At that time, preparing cake ingredients still involved a lot of tedious work, but later in the century, many labor-saving devices for cooksegg beaters, standardized baking pans, measuring cups and spoons, and ice boxesappeared. What once was accessible only to a person wealthy enough to hire and outfit a professional cook had become possible for home cooks everywhere to produce successfully.

Twentieth-century cakes. By early in the twentieth century, women's magazines and their advertisers were spreading the word not only about modern kitchen equipment and products that made baking a cake quick and easy, but were introducing their readers to recipes for layer cakes with glorious frostings and luscious fillings as popular desserts, especially in the American South. Since then, except for the introduction of the chiffon cake in 1948, and cake mixes at about the same time, the contemporary cake has not changed substantially. It is a baked, sweetened creation leavened with eggs or chemical leavens perhaps with the addition of eggs so that it is tender, light, and porous in texture. Usually, but not always, it contains wheat flour or a substitute like finely ground nuts. It may contain a substantial amount of fat or none at all.

Birthday Cakes

The great cake, a large, lavish creation, was the centerpiece for any Early American party at which it appeared. Making it was difficult, time-consuming, and costly. As Louise Conway Belden points out in The Festive Tradition: Table Decoration and Desserts in America, 16501900 (pp. 184190), its appearance made the event special and festive.

Lavishly decorated cakes continue to be symbolic of life's festive and dramatic moments, and birthday cakes are expected, above all, to be dramatic in appearance. Only wedding cakes are more elaborate. Besides highlighting an individual's birthday as an important event, today they often are used as spectacular centerpieces for public occasions in order to provide a photo opportunity or other publicity. Size and appearance are the first consideration; the cake's flavor and texture may be of less concern.

A contemporary American birthday cake is usually tall, composed of two or more layers or baked in an angel food, bundt, or other tube pan. It often is a unique creation, shaped and decorated to please the birthday celebrant (a clown cake for a child, or a hobby-related cake for an adult). Icing with elaborate decorations of gum paste (which has been made in the Middle East since before the end of the twelfth century) and the generous use of color, borrowed by medieval Europeans from Arab cuisine, add to the dramatic effect, but are not essential. The cake's primary distinguishing characteristic is that it is topped with candles.

Candles. Light from the sun or from fire had very early religious and mystical significance, and rituals using light in the form of candles became part of religious ceremonies surrounding weddings, funerals, and other important human events, according to O'Dea's Social History of Lighting (pp. 34, 139143). Candles also are associated with the measurement of time, and were used in the late ninth century by England's King Alfred to measure the hours of the day. In the Judeo-Christian tradition they have been used to symbolize the passage of time (at Advent or Hanukkah). The candles, rather than the cake itself, connote a long span of time.

Using very small tapers to light a special cake, with the number of tapers equal to a birthday child's age, seems to have begun in Germany in the late eighteenth century or earlier, judging by a letter written in 1799 by the German poet and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in which he referred to the tradition of Kinder-fest (Goethe, pp. 114115).

Birthday cake rituals. During the twentieth century, birthday celebrations spawned a host of traditions, rituals, and objects related to the festive cake. Although these vary among families and groups, when the cake appears, it is almost always accompanied by the singing of the "Happy Birthday" song, usually in English, even in nonEnglish-speaking countries in Europe and Asia. In Spanish-speaking countries of the Western Hemisphere, it often is sung in both Spanish and English. Spain and Denmark have their own birthday cake songs, with other words and tunes.

The honoree is encouraged to make a secret wish and attempt to blow out all the candles with one breath to ensure that the wish will be realized. Despite various theories that have been advanced, the true origins of this custom are unknown. After the candles are extinguished, the cake is cut and distributed to guests. For young children, whose celebrations are more focused on their ages and growth, there may be attempts by child guests, particularly in Spain and Northern Italy, to pull the birthday child's earlobes, once for each year of age, just as in the United States, spanks may be administered, finished off with "and one to grow on."

Development of an Industry

A global industry has grown up around the birthday cake tradition. Hundreds of kinds of cake decorating supplies are sold, in small shops and from huge warehouses: retail, wholesale, by mail and on the Internet. The techniques, supplies, and equipment are available to residents of even the most isolated rural areas. The industry also has published hundreds of profusely illustrated instruction books describing how to use the tools and supplies to create fanciful cakes. Women in many parts of the world have learned by using books or taking classes to decorate cakes for family and friends and many have gone on to establish a career in cake decorating.

Bakeries, pastry shops, and supermarkets in the United States do a thriving business in birthday cakes that can be decorated with frosting, gum paste flowers, or little plastic figures and carry a standard piped-on icing message like "Happy Birthday," or they can be customized for special orders in as elaborate a form as any purchaser's imagination and purse will permit, including having color photos reproduced on the iced cake's top surface.

Birthday candles reflect the global nature of birthday cakes. Some candle boxes carry safety directions in as many as five languages, and list manufacturing sites in Asia, Europe, and the United States. They are available in many sizes and lengths, all colors, metallic finishes, stripes, polka dots, and fanciful shapes such as cowboy boots, toy trains, or clowns. There are candles shaped like numbers for use when one taper for each year would be impractical, musical candles, and trick candles that relight magically after being blown out.

See also Cake and Pancake; Candy and Confections; Christmas; Epiphany; Wedding Cake; Weddings .


Belden, Louise Conway. The Festive Tradition: Table Decoration and Desserts in America, 16501900. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983.

Dalby, Andrew, and Sally Grainger. The Classical Cookbook. London: British Museum Press, 1996.

Davidson, Alan, ed. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Goethe's Werke: Weimarer Ausgabe, vol. 35. Weimar, 1892.

McFeely, Mary Drake. Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?: American Women and the Kitchen in the Twentieth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.

O'Dea, William T. The Social History of Lighting. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958.

Smallzreid, Kathleen Ann. The Everlasting Pleasure: Influences on America's Kitchens, Cooks and Cookery, from 1565 to the Year 2000. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1956.

Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne. History of Food. Translated by Anthea Bell. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1992.

Wilson, C. Anne, ed. The Appetite and the Eye: Visual Aspects of Food and Its Presentation Within Their Historic Context. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991.

Witteveen, Joop. "Notes and Queries." In Petits Propos Culinaires, no. 21. London: Prospect Books, 1985.

Shirley E. Cherkasky