Birthday Cake

July 22, 2012

Excepting weeks when the vicissitudes of travel intervene I sit down and write the Thornapple blog on Sunday mornings. This gives me an opportunity to notice things that are about to happen or that did happen over the last week. Given the food and farming ethics orientation I try to take, it means that lots of blogs note the season of the year in one way or another, or they celebrate food-relevant events. I start writing by filling in the date. This gives me an opportunity to decide whether I will take note of any special food-related significance that a given date might have. July 22 won’t fall on Sunday again until 2018. Since I don’t expect to be writing the Thornapple blog for another six years, I’m jumping on it today.

And unless you (quick of wit) have picked up the connection between the title of this week’s blog and the first paragraph, you may be asking yourself, “What’s so special about July 22?” To which I, quoting the bard John Lennon, would reply: You say it’s your birthday? Well it’s my birthday, too, yeah.

The food-related thing in connection with birthdays is pretty personal, in my experience. If you are lucky enough to live among folks you who know you and care about you, someone is going to ask you what you want to eat on your birthday. Some folks eat the same thing year after year, others seize the day on a whim. For some people it’s an opportunity to splurge, to try a restaurant that’s normally a little beyond your price range on to indulge in some tasty stuff that’s not normally part of your daily diet. They say it’s your birthday? We’re gonna’ have a good time!

Aside from the perennial obligatory celebratory pastry, we haven’t actually talked much about what we’ll eat this year in the Thompson household. In my particular case, the perennial obligatory pastry has evolved into a yellow cake with penuche frosting. It’s something my Nana used to make, and I asked her to bake one for my birthday during a couple of summers as a teenager when I was staying with my grandparents during July. Diane picked up on it one year when July 22 happened to fall during a visit to Missouri and Nana remembered the tradition. Prior to this penuche frosting was not really on Diane’s radar. It’s going to be in any standard cookbook, though, so it it’s not on your radar, dear reader, learn to live a little. I’m glad it’s your birthday. Happy Birthday to you.

It’s sentimental and trite, but small food celebrations like penuche are the heart and soul of food ethics. They are the source and sustenance of a conviviality that makes life worth living through good times and bad. Lennon himself stopped celebrating birthdays in 1980 owing to events that are too well known for me to recount here. This week the world was shocked by yet another seemingly inexplicable incident, though as yet we (or at least I) know very little about what may have been going on the mind of that particular disturbed individual. So as a food ethicist, the only thing I can say is, if you know someone who’s having a birthday, make him or her a cake.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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