Sweet Memories of Party Time

Jacques Kelly's Baltimore

February 04, 1996|By JACQUES KELLY

There was no such thing as a surprise birthday party in the household where I grew up. If anything, the manner of the celebrations was unfailingly the same, year after year. The same invitation list prevailed. And the menus didn't change much either.

In that household of 12, it did not work out that there was TC birthday each month. No. The laws of reproduction do not occur with mathematic regularity. We had seven birthdays bunched between Dec. 28 and April 1. Each one had to be given its due.

The cornerstone of these gatherings was that they were family parties. I have always thought that birthdays are personal events. They have meaning to the immediate family and most intimate friends, but their importance grows thin outside this circle.

Within the walls of that old Guilford Avenue home there was a certain security regarding birthday parties. There was a built-in knowledge that no birthday would ever be overlooked. And with an automatic guest list of a dozen, one was always assured lots of attention and a festive time.

Not that each birthday was celebrated the same way. There were small differences. My sister Ann Rose had the bad luck to be born Dec. 28, a birthday overshadowed by Christmas. As a little girl, she once wisely opted for a party outside the house. I recall that the celebration was staged at the Guilford bowling lanes on York Road.

By the time my sister Mary Stewart's birthday rolled around on Jan. 20, Christmas was over and she had the field to herself. Out came the best lace tablecloths, a pair of three-branch candelabra and the French china. No dinner in the kitchen that night.

During the middle of February the scent of recently extinguished birthday candles seemed to hang over the dining room. Grandmother Lily Rose's birthday came on the 10th, my father Joe's on the 13th and my sister Ellen's on the 20th. Joint or collective parties were never tolerated. Each birthday was celebrated on a separate night.

Part of the festivities revolved around the menu and cake. The birthday honoree got to have a favorite dish and cake or cakes. Those whose personality required a big show got that all the way -- standing rib roasts of beef, baked potatoes and all the side dishes. A high-and-mighty, home-baked coconut cake would grace the table on a pressed-glass cake stand.

One of the telling signs that a birthday was a state occasion was the source of the ice cream. The pecking order went something like this:

The bottom tier of ice creams came from the local High's store. This was OK, but not fancy. The next level was Hendler's, another good and tasty local product. It was considered "just Hendler's," but nobody declined a dish of it.

What did get some talk and birthday genuflection was a delivery of ice cream from Fiske's Caterers, then situated on Park Avenue near North. If your birthday rated ice cream from this establishment, you mattered. This was a big deal.

How could mere ice cream add such a note to a birthday dinner? For starters, Fiske's made an excellent product. Its ice cream always could be counted upon to be uniform and (to our standard of judgment) flawless.

It was also delivered with great flourish. Fiske's had a deep-blue delivery truck trimmed with gold lettering. It was one handsome van. When it pulled up to the curb, you knew you were in store for an experience that tickled the palate and stroked the birthday ego.

The deliveryman-driver produced a pasteboard box (also carrying the firm's logo), rang the doorbell, handed over the product and left. The delicious ice creams made by Fiske's were often packed in dry ice which, as all 8-year-old children know, makes great clouds of fog when dropped in a bucket of water.

One July 13, on my sister Josephine's birthday, we chucked the dry ice in her newly received plastic wading pool. The ice made spectacular bubbling effects while it murdered the pool.

The absolute height of birthday observance was an ice cream cake made by Fiske's. Several chains produce ice cream cakes today. They don't count. Fiske's version was a work of art that began with silky, high butterfat ice cream in pastel layers. The outside of the cake was all rococo decoration in frozen whipped cream. It looked as if three cake decorators had used every pastry bag and nozzle available to make roses, forget-me-nots and clouds of fluff supported by Renaissance pilasters. These ice cream cakes looked as if they belonged behind glass at the Walters Art Gallery.

The cakes arrived quite frozen and had to be left out to thaw. One cold February day, a knife inserted into a Fiske's cake just wouldn't budge. Finally, my grandfather stepped forward and gave it everything he had. The hapless blade snapped in two. To a table packed with his grandchildren, this was more hilarious than dry ice.

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