Teaching the ritual of birthday cake cutting

Educating Chandra on the proper birthday ritual was an unusually fun experience.  She learned quickly.  But you see, Chandra isn’t a kid, but a lovely and lively lady who just turned 41. Six months in Palo Alto and having come from India for a scholarship at Stanford University, she was surprised by a birthday celebration that turned out to be tremendously instructive and enjoyable, perhaps, a bit esoteric. The lunch treat was expected – but not how the treat quickly transformed into an impromptu full-scale but casual soiree.

The party of four ended up at PF Chang at Stanford Shopping Center. The initial intent was to  patronize a Japanese restaurant that we missed while driving and looking for it, and intentionally passed the Korean Tofu House which was the backup plan. Instead, after making a U-turn on El Camino to go back and search for the Japanese place, we spotted PF Chang on the right side of the street, and immediately decided to enter Stanford Shopping Center and park in front of the Chinese restaurant. Utterly spur of the moment – that was going to be the place for the birthday treat, we agreed.

We couldn’t have stumbled on a better choice.

Delectable choices for a spontaneous birthday bash at a restaurant.

The outdoor setting was most inviting.  We chose a table beside pillars covered with green vines and an open big bright red umbrella by the fence.  Some feet away lining a wide walkway and elevated on pedestals were bushes thick with orange bougainvillea flowers and salmon azaleas. Adding to the ambience were the light summer breeze, blue skies, bright sunshine, and the cheery subdued chatter of dining customers around us. I love lively venues, especially for casual dining.

The Chinese cuisine was tops. Mongolian beef, shrimp in lobster sauce, Singaporean noodles and lightly spiced and thickly sauced fried eggplant with combination fried rice and brown rice —  the faire was most satisfying.  Conversations paused for serious eating.  We were hungry; appetite augmented by the aromatic and attractive food in front of us. We happily worked on our plates, forgetting to first say “happy birthday” to the celebrant, the reason for the good time.  But not for long.

During dessert time, two male waiters brought out a large tray of syrup-soaked fried bananas around a mound of coconut ice cream, and a big slab of layered chocolate cake with a tiny candle on top for the celebrant.  It took 10 attempts for the candle to be lit, punctuated by our waiter’s venturing first measures of the happy birthday song stopped at the fourth note every time the long lighter clicked without a flame. When finally the flame came alive, the waiters led robust singing joined in by us and diners at adjacent tables.

Now here comes the caveat of the spontaneous party. Before blowing the candle, the celebrant started to slice a piece of the cake.  I had to stop her as I said that slicing happens after blowing the candle.  When the candle flame flickered out, she offered me the first piece of cake.  I said no, the celebrant mouths the first piece.  She followed obligingly.  I forgot to prod her to make a wish before blowing the candle. So, the ritual was “wishless”. Then, our celebrant sliced several pieces of the rich layers, stood up and offered cake to customers at nearby tables, laying slices on some plates. A surprise generous gesture, and everyone in our vicinity was wholeheartedly amused and pleased. No one refused the offer. After all, they joined in the singing.  So, why not partake of her cake, too.  Absolutely delightful. Perhaps, a custom we should adopt at the next birthday when celebrated at a restaurant. That whole outdoor section of the restaurant turned out to be a vibrant impromptu party. While we instructed her on the birthday ritual, she added pizzaz to the ceremonial practice with her generous sharing of her cake with diners around us, all strangers but willing participants.

That was one of the most interesting spontaneous birthday celebrations I had witnessed. Not only was food in abundance, but so were the hearty fun and laughter. Most entertaining. Thanks to our lively birthday girl of 41, a wonderful sport.

Linda P. Jacob