After you reach a certain age, birthdays become a little weird...on the one hand, you want to celebrate your continued existence, but you feel a little strange about getting older. Worst of all, you can't count on your parents to take care of it for you.
A few years ago, a lot of friends threw me a party. It was a surprise, and they really went out of their way to make it special. The problem, of course, was the next year, when two friends took me to Dairy Queen, dutch treat. I learned a few key facts:
1. You can't count on your friends to throw you a surprise party every year. If you could, it wouldn't be a surprise.
2. It's a really good idea to have a girlfriend when your birthday rolls around; that way, she
can take responsibility for your happiness on an emotionally-laden day.
3. If you really
want to celebrate your birthday, you might just have to do it yourself.
The next year, a friend and I threw a party for ourselves. We cooked food, stocked a huge bar, and invited over a few friends. The following year, I did the same thing with another friend. It was a huge success both times. The next year, I decided that I was tired of sharing the spotlight, and decided to just throw a party for myself. I dubbed it "Cranktoberfest." It went really well, and I have thrown myself a birthday celebration every year since then.
I like to cook, so I take this as an opportunity to really go crazy in the kitchen. My friend Tom and I choose a theme, buy all sorts of obscure ingredients, and spend a day cooking for twenty of my nearest and dearest. The first year, we made German food, followed by Mexican (Cranktoberfest 2004: Dia del Cranko) and Eastern European cuisine. This year, we were having a hard time deciding what to make until my aunt bought me a copy of Last Dinner on the Titanic
, a book of Titanic recipes. We decided to cook at least one thing from first class, second class, and third class. The final menu was:
Canapes A L'Amiral
Cream of Barley Soup
Roast Pork with Sage and Pearl Onions
Asparagus Salad with Champagne-Saffron Vinaigrette
Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly
My friend Maggie decided to come for the weekend, so we set her up in the basement. Tom also had two Irish friends, Paul and Keet (spelled "Keith") visiting from out of town, so we got them to hang out and help. The night before my birthday, we needed to do some shopping and start in on some of the more complex dishes. Instead, we procrastinated until about 10:30, got a little toasty with the help of Paul and Keet, wandered around the grocery section of Wal-Mart for a while, giggled at the holloween costumes and musical stuffed hamsters, bought some food, came home, decided that we weren't really interested in doing any food prep, got really drunk (again, with the help of Paul and Keet--Irish guys are incredibly useful when it comes to getting shitfaced on the eve of one's birthday party), and watched Super Troopers
The following morning, I woke up at nine, feeling like a piece of belly-button lint (I don't drink too much anymore), called Tom (who sounded worse than I felt), and started in with the prep work. Tom rolled in around 11, and we went back to Wal-Mart to pick up some of the things that we forgot the night before. When we got home, I continued with the prep while Tom drove to Kroger, the wine shop, and the liquor store to get the things that Wal-Mart didn't have.
Okay, at this point, it's worth noting that everyone was supposed to start arriving at 5:30, although I made it clear that people are welcome to show up whenever they damn well felt like it. However, as much as I wanted to keep this whole thing casual, I'm starting to get nervous, as it was now after 12 and I still didn't have all the required ingredients for any of the dishes. Worse yet, two of them involved gelatin and one needed to roast for two hours. It was going to be tight.
By two, when Tom showed up, I had the pork marinating, most of the pearl onions peeled, and all of the onions, peppers, and garlic peeled and chopped. I had also peeled, cleaned, chopped, and mixed the available fruit and made the coconut shortbread for the cookies. In fact, I was almost out of things to do. The next three hours were kind of a blur, as my wife ran out to pick up last minute ingredients, and we seriously got into the cooking. By the time the first guests, Manu and Monica, arrived at 5:00, the pork was roasting, the soup was almost finished, the shrimp butter (for the canapes) was done, and the jellies were sitting in the fridge, where they were definitely not gelling.
We moved the jellies to the freezer, started throwing vinegar and salt into the soup to try to get it to develop a flavor, and set Manu to work chopping asparagus, peeling turnips, and slicing baguettes while Monica (who deserves canonization) started cleaning the massive pile of dishes that had somehow accumulated over the last three hours. Sheila C. and her two daughters arrived soon after and help Manu put together the canapes. He piped shrimp butter on the baguette slices while they arranged parsley, sliced shrimp, and fish roe on top. They then moved on to the coconut cookies, helping Maggie roll them out and arrange them on baking sheets.
By now, we had a whole lot more guests. My wife greeted them and makes sure everybody had a drink (getting into the theme of the evening, we'd put a huge white ice chest in the living room and filled it with cold beer). Manu brought out the canapes. He was pretending to be a waiter, an effect that was slightly thrown off by his "Stop Clubbing Baby Seals
" t-shirt. Meanwhile, I worked on the soup. It still had no flavor, but, as Sheila C. pointed out, it was
English cuisine. Almost everyone seemed to enjoy it, especially when we piped shrimp butter on top. Tom's girlfriend, Dani, made the asparagus while Tom cooked the turnips and I finished the gravy for the pork. I got Keith to carve the pork (no, not Keet
. This was a different Keith. This one was Eva's husband. She was pregnant with twins.). We gave everyone a glass of Punch Romaine (champagne punch) to clear their palates and cool them down, and started in with the main course.
The next problem was that there wasn't any room to put out food in the living room and the kitchen was filled with helpers and assorted supervisors. We gathered people into little parties of two or three, led them through the kitchen, and filled their plates. Pretty soon, everyone had some food and was digging in.
We decided to take a break, grab beers, and mingle. This was one of the best times of the party--Tom and I had been cooking all day, and everybody was enjoying the fruits of our labors. We got to hang out, eat a little bit, and watch the guests have fun. I talked to Joe about Christopher Moore, one of the best authors ever
, and Carol asked me about my anti-Dutch post. She tried to convince me that racism is wrong, even when it comes to the Dutch. I, however, know better: racism is wrong except
when it comes to the Dutch. Still, we had a nice conversation. Tom's father, who seemed a little uncomfortable earlier, was talking to Sheila R's boyfriend about deer hunting, and was enjoying himself, while Tom's mom was talking to Eva about the impending arrivals. Manu and Monica were cuddled up on the couch, Cara and Phil were exclaiming over the food, Alicia and Jill were reminiscing with my sister, Ella, about High School, and Tom, Dani, Paul, Maggie, Keet, and I were just enjoying the moment.
Soon we had to go back to the kitchen to get dessert ready. I started whipping together shortening, butter, sugar, coconut, and vanilla to make the filling for the coconut sandwiches, while Tom arranged squares of chartreuse gelatin with apricots. Everybody grabbed some dessert and headed downstairs, where Ella was showing a few short films that she made in art school. Afterward, we talked about the films while cleaning the kitchen. By now, Tom was really digging into the beer (as were we all), and everybody was talking themselves out in the living room. A little later, the few survivors adjourned to the basement to watch some Bill Hicks videos and finish off the beer. I hung out with them for a while before going to bed. It was 2:00 AM.
The next day, I was up at 10, feeling almost obscenely good. Maggie was up, too, and we started making breakfast. Tom, Paul, and Keet stayed over, and were sprawled all over the basement. We started by making some crescent rolls and cinnamon buns that I had in the fridge. Ella woke up and went out to get orange juice, buttermilk, and bacon. Maggie and I went downstairs to wake the Irish guys and Tom. Tom was pasty-faced and looked like death, while Paul and Keet were pretty much walking into walls. Maggie sang some Les Miserables
, while I started in with an irish-accented version of "The City of New Orleans." We were total assholes and enjoyed every minute of it.
We went upstairs to down some more caffeine while the Irish guys showered and Tom suffered in the living room. Orange juice, bacon, sausage, buttermilk pancakes, and assorted other starches worked wonders, and everyone was soon ready to get going. As Tom left, he smiled and told me that this was the best Cranktoberfest ever. I had to agree.
I learned two lessons:
1. Not to get too Christmas Carol
about it, but friends really make the birthday party.
2. The best birthday parties end with you cooking breakfast for seven people.