The parent trap

Author: Fergus Henderson
Photography: Antonia Pesenti

Fergus Henderson finds that when catering for the kids, it's best to resist the temptation to reach for the bottle.

I hark back to the age when birthday girls wore patent shoes and white socks and boys wore a new pair of slip-ons with animal-track soles.

It was all different then, the mums in jolly-coloured tank tops, the girls sporting pigtails and the boys suffering pudding-bowl haircuts. These reflections rather age me, but at least it doesn't put me in the cynical group of folk who like to pretend their birthday doesn't exist. Miserable souls, denying us the possibility of celebrating them.

I have a rose-tinted view of these occasions, my mum being the kind of proper mum who made me birthday cakes that looked like the yellow submarine, a football pitch or a castle. There were cupcakes, sandwiches with the crusts cut off, pirate outfits for the boys and fairy outfits for the girls. I recall a very well-wrapped pass-the-parcel containing all manner of useful things, such as a glue-stick and a tin of sardines. My overriding memory of these parties is, by the end of them, I would always do an impression of a human Chernobyl, my central core going into a sugar-overdose meltdown, causing me to chase the girls, as any respectable young pirate would do.

When I asked Margot, my wife, about her memories of childhood parties in New Zealand, her recollections were of much more healthy festivities. Her mother, god bless her, is a wholesome soul, but still tried to celebrate in a youthful way, making fish and chips with bran batter, washed down with a cider vinegar and honey drink. I'm afraid I go with the unhealthy, hyperactivity-inducing fare.

(I'm intrigued by the stuff in the supermarkets; what do they put in crisps that has kids climbing up the walls? Maybe it's the potatoes.)

My greatest culinary birthday triumph for my own children was a castle built out of fish fingers, more in the school of a Scottish fortified tower and not dissimilar to a fish-finger Jenga. It's the parents you have to police at this moment. As the fish fingers are brought to the festive table, they begin to swarm like seagulls behind a fishing trawler. Following the theme of an architectural upward momentum was the croquembouche made with doughnuts, another parent trap. The doughnuts speak for themselves - who can resist fried dough? Sugar all over your face, the filling dribbling down your chin.

A word of advice at this juncture. You have seen the parents turn into seagulls; now watch them turn into fish when you offer them a glass of wine. It was going like clockwork; you thought you would have them out by 6.30 or certainly by seven, but you know once the wine is out you're in for the long haul. A parent you may have nodded at in the playground is drinking your wine and suddenly you're best friends. So, however thirsty you are or however much it seems a good idea, hold back on the uncorking until the coast is clear.

The good thing is children grow up. Langoustine are a birthday request not so popular with the parents who are all looking for their fish-finger hit, but not much else has changed so keep your corks in. Which brings me neatly back to the evil drink, which all of a sudden becomes the focus of the party and marks the loss of innocence. Once I was restrained and escorted out of our flat by a friend as my son's friends tried to smuggle two huge suitcases of alcopops into a party. I'm not sure whether it was the presence of booze or the nature of the booze itself that made me feel I had failed somehow.

Let's end this birthday celebration with a quote from my daughter's speech on her 16th birthday: "I can now have sex and officially collect scrap metal." Ah, youth.

Related link: cake recipes.







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