Hoisin Duck and Birthday Candles

I had the best birthday party last night! My presents are splendid, the venue is my favorite fancy place around here. But the best was our kids from all over the place showing up one after another, just casually coming through a door. Actually, I have one whose plane delays mean that I still have a big present waiting. So much magic!

When a birthday lands has a big affect on how it is celebrated. May birthdays mean classmates, school in session, cupcakes. December 25 birthdays mean shoehorning your important day into everyone else’s. Do you become more selfless? I don’t know anyone born on leap year. Are they impossibly young? Or just impossibly mature. My unfortunate timing, and it was out of my control, was to be born 15 minutes after Norwegian Independence Day was over. Would I have been heroic and independent, striking out over some vast glacier if I had been born 15 minutes earlier?

In our house growing up, the best one to be was to be not the birthday girl. The birthday girl got presents it is true, and got to choose the menu and the cake, but the other kids got to be in the kitchen with Mom, baking, cooking, and plotting! No views of the cake! Sacred ritual! The birthday party was a big day for everyone.

Merv came from a less messy, less raucous, less cake mix and frosting kind of place. And he is a quiet reserved kind of person. He looked a little shell shocked the first years we started celebrating his birthday here. He was the first son in law, the first boy in our harem of a household. We lived 8 hours away from Forestville but Merv would haul us all here to our cabin in Arkwright for a month. Then he would proceed to do a year's worth of construction work on the cabin fitted into one month. He never wasted a bit of light on anything as frivolous as sitting down to eat.

Mothers-in-law love of their sons in law is as unstoppable as a Lake Erie thaw surging over the Niagara when the ice booms are lifted. It is an unbridled love, incapable of guidance. It takes a culinary form. It has nothing to do with what the recipient wants. I have one friend whose mother would make her son in law a special bread whenever he would go west to visit her. Even when she was 100. I have another who made tuna noodle casserole. He abhorred tuna noodle casserole. She did not know this. She thought he loved it. His involuntary response was way beyond the eat a little and move it around the plate sort, it was a sneak it in the red glass I can’t bear to touch it where is the dog can I get it in his mouth kind of response. And she didn’t know. He never told her. His greatest act of love, his great sacrifice, was to eat the casserole and smile.

My mother’s love for Merv took this culinary floodwaters form. His birthday celebrations took on an elaborate life of their own. It would be a destination at least an hour away from the cabin because otherwise Merv would disappear only to start sawing and pounding nails to finish up a cabin project. The party would be a picnic. It would be a secret. And it would be an international menu.

We will never forget the year we went to Letchworth State Park. It’s about 2 hours away. The park is breathtaking. The heights are grand and the depths are magical. The Genessee water sparkles in the sun. The groves with their picnic tables are peaceful. None of this explains the indelibility of the memory.

The miniature wheel barrow our toddler cried out for as we passed a yard sale, the Chrysler’s screeching halt, the cavernous space for it along with coolers and picnic baskets in the trunk, that wheel barrow that conjures up memories of a sturdy little boy working just behind his Dad. Was that the year of Letchworth? I think so but I am not sure. It is not the wheelbarrow that makes the Letchworth picnic unforgettable.

We remember the day because of what never made it to the picnic.

In the spirits of our local town Versailles (pronounced as you probably already know Ver-Sails) every element of a meal was named in French and pronounced…well, not in French. The menu had taken a lot of thought. Portability…precooked…ease of presentation. Hors d’oeuvres’ (pronounced horse doovers) would take the form of fresh pulled radishes and celery sticks. The ‘piece de resistance’ pronounced of course piece of resistance as in piece of cake would be hoisin duck. People would make their own, with the skill honed by peanut butter sandwich preparation. They could use lots of duck, or just a little. Hoisin sauce, or none. Scallions to eat or just to use as a paintbrush. Paper towels and old clothes so small hands could enjoy independent proud creation. Dignity and respect for all.

That roasting duck the day before had perfumed the house as its skin roasted more and more crisply. We made the pancakes on the burners next to the ovens with their roasting ducks, two of them so there would be plenty of meat for everybody. We used a proper pan, heated it up, swirled around a tablespoon of batter and flipped each one delicately after the batter was set. Even after discarding the raggedy and torn ones we had a high pile of pancakes. We then carefully sheltered each from the next by waxed paper and packed them in tins. We used a crepe recipe, crepes pronounced crape as in crape paper. We trimmed the scallions and carefully sliced their green parts so they made perfect fan tails. It was hard to keep our minds on this precise work because the succulent smell from the ovens was forming fantasies of great mouthfuls of tender dark meat oozing juice and the sweet tart mysterious wonder of hoisin sauce, a sprig of crisp curly scallion, all wrapped up in the most delicate pancake, just barely robust enough to hold its precious contents.

Mom explained why we were cooking 2 ducks. She and Dad had held a dinner party for 4 couples shortly after they were married. She made one duck. One duck is not enough. Dad was a skilled carver. Each person got 2 or 3 translucent slices to eat along with the gravy and mashed potatoes. Of course he was very proud when the story was told as it showed his fine technique. For the cook, though, the trouble with memories like that is that the embarrassment sticks to the story like hoisin sauce to a scallion fan tail.

We would have 2 ducks and Dad would carve them at the table, the picnic table.

We pulled the picnic baskets and coolers out. The cloth tablecloth went on the table. The napkins and plates, the silverware, the wine glasses and pop glasses, the salt and pepper. Dad could not abide a meal with no salt or pepper on the table. He would cry out with horror in his huge bass voice “Who set the table? There is no salt in the salt cellar!” We sighed with relief. The salt and pepper shakers were here well filled. We brought out his bone carving set, carefully wrapped in a lean dish towel and put the set by the head of the table. And the cake had made its trip successfully. The frightening spark points of the meal had been avoided. We pulled out the hoisin sauce and put the jar on a saucer so it wouldn’t drip on the tablecloth. We pulled out the bag of fan-tailed scallions and scattered them on a platter like cheerleaders’ pompons waiting for the game to begin. We opened the tin of pancakes and arranged them in high piles.

We checked the cooler. No ducks. We checked the picnic baskets. No ducks. We did a complete removal of all trunk contents. No ducks.

We opened the wine. We made hoisin radishes with scallions wrapped in pancakes. We heard stories of childhood sandwiches, lots of butter slathered on bread, sliced radishes, lots of salt, eaten in a Norwegian Minnesota classroom in the spring. We thought about the ducks on the counter back in Forestville. Then we put the candles on the cake and sang happy birthday to Merv.

Those kids are all grown up now and they are sleeping upstairs, the ones that could stay. And I am savoring the memories of last night’s birthday party with my beautiful tall kids, all spending days on planes, hours in cars, to be with me! I didn’t order duck. Who needs duck?