My birthday is December 5, not a good time for an American birthday, sandwiched as it is between Thanksgiving and Christmas. People have barely recovered from the first and are in a frenzy to prepare for the second. I discovered long ago that I have to make my own party.
The tradition in Italy is that the birthday celebrants treat their friends, not the other way around. In other words, you take your friends out to dinner; they don’t take you. That treat can be a simple one: a plate of cookies for the people in your gym class or a weekend in a castle if you have the cash. Most celebrations fall somewhere in between. I frequently take a group of friends out to a coffee bar for cappuccino and pastry.
Last year, on the day before, I prepared an elaborate brunch for friends. I made a torta rustica, cut fruit and cheese, tossed a salad. We drank spiced apple juice. For dessert, I served Chocolate Jack Daniels Whiskey Cake that I’d brought from Tennessee’s oldest bakery and stored in my freezer. And we made s’mores. At the end, with the help of my friend Sharon, I popped the cork on a bottle of prosecco that I’d picked up at a vineyard I’d visited the week before. It was a stunning birthday.
This year, I debated taking friends out for dinner or cooking it myself. In the end, cooking it myself won out because many restaurants are closed on Monday. And I wanted the best for my friends.
I scheduled the customary massage on the Saturday before, Monday being the day such establishments usually close. It was heavenly, and I’m still feeling the effects.
Since people were dribbling in from work, I needed a munchie hour before we sat down to dinner. I served Campari soda and a non-alcoholic drink popular here, along with a tray full of bite-sized snacks.
And since I had to teach a class from five to seven, I wanted a menu that could be prepared ahead. I settled on that old Silver Palate standby, Chicken Marbella, with broccoli and rice. Next came a fennel salad, then pecan pie.
I had specified “No Gifts,” but people brought flowers, wine, and Christmas crackers. For the uninitiated, Christmas crackers are party favors traditional in Great Britain and other Commonwealth countries. Each is made from a tube about the size of a toilet paper core, stuffed with a paper hat, a piece of paper with corny jokes and riddles, and a prize. The tube is festively wrapped. Two people grab opposite ends of the cracker and pull; one end comes off with a pop generated like the sound of a cap pistol.
Our Christmas crackers had a musical theme. Musical notes covered the crowns, and instead of a prize, each cracker contained a whistle with the sound of a musical note. Since we were five, three people had to take two whistles. One person had a small wooden baton, and following a numerical cheat sheet, conducted the orchestra. The first tune was 666 666 68456 which translates to "Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the Way." How we laughed.
I took chocolate for my class. At the end of the lesson, I scattered them on my desk, and the students burst into Happy Birthday. And they weren’t too bad. Italians have great difficulty with the English “th” sound and usually say “Happy Burtday.”
I had a Happy, Happy Burtday.