Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

The Birthday Party, And Its Preparations

Why was it that I baked the brownies from scratch? Well, first of all, there needed to be brownies. It's the kid's birthday, the actual birthday as opposed to the day we had the birthday party, and we were given to understand-in the way such understandings are given-that some parents like to send in treats for the preschool class on the birthday, to contribute to the birthday observances. Such things are done.

So you get the thing done, with the minimum possible amount of thinking. You are already in the quicksand. Don't flail. I would go get a box of brownie mix at the Giant, throw it together, and be done. Duncan Hines. The job was already over, in my mind.

Or but was it Betty Crocker? I was in the baking-stuff aisle now. Or Pillsbury? Fudge-style? Family-style? What is a family-style brownie? Milk chocolate, for the palate of the two-year-olds? But wasn't milk chocolate weird? Weren't brownies normally dark?

The brownie-mix industry was trying to make me responsible for these questions. I would be delivering these brownies to a room full of two-year-olds, each with his or her own parental strictures and guidelines. At the birthday party, in the park on Saturday, we tried to create a brief diversion at the end between when a child picked out a gift bag and when that child took possession, so the parents could screen the contents and cull the M&Ms or the fruit snacks or, who knows, maybe they mightn't approve of stickers. Different outlooks for everyone.

We lifted the idea of having the party in a park from one of his preschool classmates. The park was ideal because going to the park constitutes, in itself, an activity, and it's an activity that suits the atomized mindset of the more-or-less-two-year-old partygoers. The guest of honor, for instance, spent something like half an hour on the swings, ignoring the whole occasion. He can stay on the swings indefinitely. I only got him down by bonking him lightly in the forehead with a helium balloon, which is usually good for drawing him out, if a helium balloon is handy.

Nowadays, in our Age of Wonders, you can just walk into the party store and buy a tank of helium, to keep, at a per-balloon price that's not much different from the price of filled balloons a la carte, provided you don't dwell on the deliberately obfuscating choice of 9-inch balloons as the reference point for the former versus 11- or 12-inchers for the latter. I strongly recommend not dwelling. Especially since who wants to be driving a car full of pre-inflated helium balloons?

And filling balloons from your very own tank of helium there at the party clearly counts as another party activity, which means you've basically taken care of the party-activity problem, once you add in the cupcakes, which you have not frosted or decorated because you are letting the little guests frost and decorate their own. By a happy coincidence, this means you don't have to worry about keeping the cupcakes upright in transit.

Also the parents can restrict the frosting or sprinkles if they so choose, in their role as empowered parents. Moreover, again: atomization. Nobody had to gather around a central cake. The guest of honor got two candles in his own cupcake, and tried to snuff them out with his fingers. At his first birthday, I had asked my wife, who was closer to the high chair, to wait a second while I snapped a picture of the cake with the lit candle, and the result was a snapshot of the precise moment he had swiftly-too swiftly for the naked eye to register-jabbed his little finger into the interesting bright flame. His pull-back reflex was so quick he didn't get burned, or even cry.

The choices for buying matches at the grocery store were a jumbo box of something like 1,000, a huge collection of paper matchbooks, or a package of eight little normal-sized matchboxes. I got the eight-pack. When she saw it, my wife raised the possibility of putting the boxes of matches into the children's gift bags, along with the other divided-up multipacks of loot.

But that was two or three grocery runs ago, and now the problem was brownies, or the problem was preventing brownies from becoming a problem. I cleared my mind and picked a box off the shelf. Fine. Add vegetable oil and two eggs for cake-style brownies or one egg for fudge-style brownies. What? Where was "normal brownies"? Then I remembered: vegetable oil. The gallon jug of oil by the stove was almost empty.

I had left the car at the apartment building and walked to the store, without even bringing the old-lady rolling shopping bag-cart, and the list of things to buy had naturally and automatically expanded: a gallon of milk, a half-gallon of juice, some canned goods, a head of cabbage, two pounds of green beans… I was not adding a jug of oil.

Once upon a time, before there was a child, when we had a suburban house with not one but two wall ovens in the spacious kitchen, I used to make brownies. Brownie-brownies, not "cake-style" or "family-style." They were easy. They used butter, which I already had. Flour, ditto. I grabbed a package of unsweetened chocolate. I was not shopping for the children; I was shopping for the brownies.

We still had the old Nexis printout of the recipe from the New York Times. Butter and chocolate. I watched them melt together in a pan over low heat, the chocolate swirling into the clear liquid butter, and it all came back. This thing after that thing, stirred into a bowl: the butter-chocolate mix, sugar, an egg, another egg, flour, vanilla. Into the pan, into the oven, out again in 20 minutes. Effortless.

Later, after I had cut the brownies and removed them from the pan, I checked the date on the printout and saw that the recipe had in fact appeared in the Times only a matter of weeks before we'd sold the suburban house and moved away. Whatever past life the butter and chocolate had evoked had not happened the way I distinctly remembered it had.

In the morning, I brought him to school in his stroller, with the brownies on paper plates in a plastic shopping bag. I explained to one of the teachers that I had brought them in for a birthday snack. Are there any nuts in them? she asked.

No, I said, there aren't any nuts in them.

Tom Scocca's first book, Beijing Welcomes You, is in the hands of his editor at Riverhead Books. He also writes intermittently at Tom Scocca dot com and for newspapers and magazines. He would likely write for you, for money, if you have some. Ask him!

Previously: The Safety Seat Is Ruining American Family Life In Your Metal Death Box

23 Comments / Post A Comment

metoometoo (#230)

One time I asked my mom to make individual servings of chocolate mousse for my entire class, instead of cupcakes. (I had no idea what chocolate mousse actually was when I made this request.) My mom, who does not particularly enjoy or excel at cooking or baking, obliged. Parents!

Bittersweet (#765)

Matchboxes in the gift bags. Wish I'd thought of that.

I smell a book proposal. Do it! Please start an underparenting trend!

I had my 8th birthday party in the second grade at the United Nations School in Manhattan. All the popular kids who never gave me the time of day othwerwise were sooo nice, arguing even as to who would sit next to the birthday boy. Such fakes, those kids. I cannot eat a slice of cake even today without thinking highly skeptical thoughts about the human condition.

And you learned that at the UN School? Excellent!

Yes. That, and how to play the recorder.

Emily (#20)
Tom Scocca (#48)


Emily (#20)

(So gratified!) Yes: they are the best and simplest. Slightly more baroque but also really, really good are these:

Regular cocoa and instant coffee work fine. The addition of brown sugar does something special to the consistency. Thank you all in advance for bearing with me here.

atipofthehat (#797)

I always thought brownies were wee folk who come out at night to help us with our household chores, but are also known to get up to all sorts of hijinks and play mischievous pranks.

Now that I know they're really small, moist chocolate cakes, I don't know how much work I'll be able to get out of them.

atipofthehat (#797)

OK, now I'm wondering what Hepburn's response to a liverwurst popsicle at Falai might have been.

jaimealyse (#647)

I love this column so hard.

Bettytron (#575)

Seriously. I don't have kids and I'm not married but I find this relatable and pleasant and cozy in a way that makes me actually smile, not just think-smile.

I've actually driven a car full of pre-inflated helium balloons. Lots of them. So many, they filled up the car and surrounded me. I barely managed to keep a small space clear directly in front of my face so I could see where I was going.

It was actually kind of dangerous, and I was worried that I'd get pulled over by a cop and arrested. Imagine having a charge like "driving while surrounded by balloons" on your record?

atipofthehat (#797)

Given your avatar, Sir, it all makes some wonderful kind of sense.

jfruh (#713)

Wait, you used to live in a big suburban house when you didn't have a kid, but now that you have a kid you live in an apartment building from which you can walk to the grocery story? Do you live in Bizarro-world?

jfruh (#713)

(I'm not criticizing — yay, urban families! — just startled.)

Tengrain (#858)

This is like an ad for Trojans. Where's the product placement?



mathnet (#27)

Do-your-own-thing-at-the-park parties are almost as good as music ones like this:

Your child is a child, people. Just show up and hang out.

Welcome to the dessert of the real.

KarenUhOh (#19)

I would have just sent the kid in the store while I sat in the car and listened to Howard Stern.

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