Birthdays are a bitch. I mean, not in the traditional sense of “oh, crap, I’m getting older” (which, just between you and me, I find a little whiny. Getting older, I always say, beats the alternative).
No, for me the problem is that, in our culture there can hardly be a celebration so inextricably bound up with sugar as the birthday. Not to indulge in a piece of a friend or relative’s birthday cake, it seems, is tantamount to rejecting that person altogether. (“Who me? Oh no, no cake for me. I don’t even like Gertrude!”) If you aren’t having a piece of that sugar-infused baked good, you had better have an excellent reason, such as being deathly allergic to birthday candle wax, or suffering from a temporary but severe case of salivary gland paralysis.
Even then. You’re on the outs- you are not partaking of the gastronomical expression of birthday bliss and somehow, in some way, that means you didn’t really celebrate. This year, for us, that has resulted in some choppy waters for us to navigate in the birthday ocean. And- in case you hadn’t noticed, somebody is ALWAYS having a birthday.
Consequently, in the interest of not completely wrecking my children’s childhoods, I’ve instituted the “birthday party” policy, to wit: “If five or more children are ALL HAVING THE SAME TREAT AROUND YOU SIMULTANEOUSLY, you can have it too.” This rule is motivated largely by an experience I had at one of our own birthday parties here at the house years ago, at which one poor child brought her own vegan cupcake which she picked at miserably, while the rest of the children enthusiastically dug into their cake slices. She might as well have been eating sawdust. I vowed that day never to do that to my children.
(This rule, alas, does not apply to Steve and I, who supposedly have the fortitude to stand by and chat smilingly while everyone else around us enjoys styrofoam cups full of Ben and Jerry’s Double Fudge Apocalypse.)
So Greta and I did enjoy S’mores on last week’s Sixth Grade Camping trip, (my most egregious transgression of the year) followed by two bites of cake at a communal birthday celebration held for not only Steve and my impending birthdays, but also three other Virgo friends as well.
Only two nights later we were celebrating Steve’s actual birthday and his special request for our official monthly dessert was an exciting challenge: ever since we had it at one of Emeril’s restaurants years ago, I’ve promised to recreate his signature Banana Cream Pie. But I’ve been intimidated… it’s a complicated recipe, on top of which I’ve been told by my cousin the pastry chef that the pastry cream filling in Emeril’s cookbook recipe doesn’t “work.”
So Monday afternoon I set out on my quest to conquer the Banana Cream Pie. First you make and bake the graham cracker and mashed banana crust; then you make the pastry cream (I used a Martha Stewart recipe in place of Emeril’s) which has to chill for two hours; after that you place alternate layers of sliced bananas with pastry cream in the crust, then chill another two hours. Before serving, you concoct a caramel sauce of sugar, water and heavy cream on the stove, and whip the heavy cream with vanilla and shave the chocolate… each of which gets ladled or dolloped or sprinkled on top just before serving.
Are you getting all of this?
In between steps I made our actual dinner, which seemed incidental. Finally, we had eaten dinner, opened presents, boiled the caramel, whipped the cream and sprinkled the chocolate. We sang the birthday song, and it was time to try the pie.
Oh. My. God. Was it SWEEEEEEEET. It actually made my teeth hurt. I mean, go figure, right? There was only sugar in every one of those- what- four separate recipes that were concocted and combined… from crust to cream filling to whipped cream to caramel drizzle. It’s a wonder we didn’t all pass out from Complete Sugar Shock.
Actually, I almost did. I felt awful. A few bites in and my head began pounding in earnest- as if it were being squeezed in a vice. The pie didn’t taste right either… it was just not right at all: in addition to being heart-stoppingly sweet, the texture was too goopy. After my entire afternoon’s investment of time I was deeply disappointed. I couldn’t finish my piece. Physically, I felt awful. I lay down on the couch and, exhausted, feel asleep.
It didn’t help, as it turned out, that I was coming down with a cold. Still, I wondered, have I changed so much? Contrary to what many have assumed, I’m not trying to wipe desserts from the face of the earth… just making the argument that we need them to truly be special. Had I worked so hard avoiding sugar only to have my love for that special dessert ruined? Is it really a case of all or nothing? I hated to admit it to myself, but lately I seem to have become the kind of person who gets much more enjoyment out of a “Dirt Cookie” (as I think of my bland, Dextrose-sweetened, oatmeal-raisin cookies, that only our family would love) than a well-made piece of pie.
Then again, I think, isn’t that what this year is all about? Changing our taste-buds? Realizing that we don’t “need” nearly the amount of sugar we regularly consume? Did I expect to get through the year completely unchanged? And if I did, would that be a good thing?
Oh, but change is hard.
The next day, despite my memory of the sickly-sweetness- I tried a bite of the leftover pie from the fridge and it was… good! Whoa- really good! THIS reminded me of the pie we had at Emeril’s. After the extra hours in the fridge the correct texture had finally been reached, and the coldness had additionally softened the sweetness. I was relieved: perhaps I hadn’t lost my ability to enjoy a good sweet after all.
Later that night after dinner, I shared the last pie slice with my husband. I should’ve stuck with the one or two bites- after that it started seeming too sweet again. Afterwards I had to go brush my teeth just to get that overpowering taste out of my mouth. And the headache came back.
Who knows- maybe the legacy of this No Sugar Year for me will be a two-bite limit on all desserts. Although my body would surely thank me for it, I have to admit… I’m a little ambivalent about that.