Last week Abra turned two. Growing up, my mother had a rule that, when it came to children’s birthday parties, the number of guests shouldn’t exceed the age of the celebrant. As a kid I thought this rule was terribly unjust, but as an adult I see my mother’s infinite wisdom shining through. So we had a very small “tea for two”-themed birthday party with two of Abra’s closest “friends” – I’m not sure if two-year-olds really have friends – in attendance. I made a variety of tea sandwiches, little fingers of white bread filled with creamy egg salad, slice of turkey, thin wedges of lightly pickled cucumber, and, of course, tomatoes from our garden. Abra liked the egg salad best and mainly picked around the other ones. The scones, lemon curd, and clotted cream were from the St. James Tearoom, which not only saved me the trouble of making said items but executed them far better than I ever could. There were also slices of fruit, and the children sat and ate these things like civilized human beings for about three minutes before they hopped up from their tiny, colorful chairs and began vying for the one purple balloon that all three girls wanted. (Another bit of advice from my mother regarding children’s parties, which I shall never ignore again: make sure everything is identical, including the color of the balloons.)
And I made a homemade chocolate cake, a decadent thing that was almost the consistency of fudge. Watching Abra spoon the cake into her mouth, I couldn’t help but remember being a five-year-old at a very fancy restaurant on the Washington coast called The Ark and confidently ordering an enormous slice of dense death by chocolate cake (tres 1980s) and eating the whole thing myself, much to my parents’ surprise. That’s the funny thing about birthdays and celebrations, especially where food is concerned. It’s easy to fall through the rabbit hole and telescope through time, a simple slice of birthday cake suddenly transporting you back to a summer vacation nearly 30 years ago. Our experience of these occasions is so bound up in our memories, of what we recall from our families of origin, of what we hope to replicate ourselves. My mother always made my birthday cake, and while she was a professional baker and I, most decidedly, am not, I couldn’t imagine a store-bought cake for Abra, a decision born not out of some moral superiority but a notion inherited like a piece of jewelry. It’s difficult to imagine it any other way, and in the absence of my mother it’s how I honor her memory and bring her into the fold of a new generation.
Later in the day we found ourselves hungry for dinner, but after all that rich party food we were in search of something light, and in the wake of so much planning I wanted to make something without much effort involved. I pawed my way through the refrigerator and flipped through my cookbooks in search of inspiration and came up with this recipe for what I’m calling Antipast(o)a Salad. Get it? It’s an antipasto-inspired pasta salad! I mentioned in my last post that I’m not one for inventing recipes on the fly – or at all, really – so I was proud of how well this dish turned out. This pasta salad is perfectly seasonal, redolent of the Mediterranean flavors that are currently in the markets right now: the last of the cucumbers and tomatoes, peppers, onions, and basil. After so much activity that day it felt good to sit down at the kitchen table with glasses of red wine and a simple supper. With the sudden return of the darker evenings we lit taper candles, which we had to keep Abra from blowing out after so much practice in the days leading up to her birthday. “A toast,” we said, “to Abra!” We clinked our glasses together, then touched them to the rim of her milk cup, which delighted her to no end. Traditions are slowly mounting. New memories are forming on the backs of the old ones. We take one more turn around the sun.