Birthday is a big deal to me. I get so hyped up about the occasion that I have been known to do a month long countdown to the big day. One year my parents got so fed up that they sat me down and told me “it’s not about you all the time sweetheart”. After that, I learned to dial down my excitement in front of other people. Secretly, I still anticipate birthday with bated breath.
Since this is my blog, I have license to be as excited as I want. I already made plans to spend the day in Berlin at the world’s biggest inline skating race. There is plenty of time for me to fret and dream about this upcoming trip. Today I suddenly remember a childhood treat I enjoyed at my birthday parties long ago. I requested for them a few years in a row and my parents indulged my sweet tooth. I did not think much about it when I was young but my adult mind now tells me it was not a usual treat.
Take a step back with me and imagine that you are a kid in British colonial Hong Kong during the mid 80’s. Your home is a high-rise apartment inside a fire station headquarter by the harbour. The intermittent fire alarm is your soundtrack to playtime. You look out the balcony and see the fake building for firefighting rescue drills. Some days, the fire engine would reach its long ladder skyward with water spraying out to the building. Some days, you see groups of shirtless firemen playing volleyball at break time. Top Gun flexes its muscle in cultural influence as much as the guys flex theirs.
Your friends in school look forward to coming to your birthday parties because after the song and cake, everyone gets to take turn sliding down the one-story tall fireman’s pole. There is always a photo of all the kids lining up side by side wearing oversized fireman’s helmet and jacket.
The perks don’t end there. With a fire station full of guys to feed, there is a contracted catering company that prepares two times a day a rotating menu of Chinese dishes. For all the families living in the quarters, that is a huge convenience. We can place our supper orders and dinner will be delivered to our door (we have to pay, of course). Unlike ordering deliveries from restaurants, there is no menu. We simply tell the caterer how many dishes we want and it is a surprise every time. I think that is one reason why my parents play host to so many extended family gatherings. This mysterious catering company doesn’t just excel in Chinese cooking. Remember that the time is 80’s and many higher ranking officers are expat Caucasian. The same caterer is called upon to prepare Western food for different functions at the headquarter.
Birthday cake is certainly nice but the treat I look forward to most is a slab apple pie from our resident caterer. If memory serves me right, it is a hefty beast in half sheet pan. Between the soggy bottom and flaky top crust lies three inches of densely packed apple pieces, plump raisins, and chunks of bread to soak up the juice. But the pièce de résistance is the jar of silky custard sauce that always comes with the pie. I would greedily ladle a large scoop of the eggy sweet sauce over my piece of pie until every nooks and crannies are saturated. It is a treat that I never taste since my family left the city for a new life in Canada.
The closest that I have come to the apple slab pie of my dream is apple strudel. On days when I really crave a taste from my childhood, I go to the neighbourhood Chinese bakery and make myself a bowl of crème anglaise. It is not the same. Perhaps one of these days, I will begin my search again in my own kitchen.