I’m a longtime fan of pineapple upside-down cakes and have often requested one from my mother on the day of my birth, which happens to be today.
Mom won’t be baking this morning and you can be sure that it pains her not to do so.
I was born on Bob Dylan’s 17th birthday. When I turned five, the great bluesman Elmore James passed away in Chicago, though no one told me. What did a family of East Baltimore immigrant laborers know of the blues? Plenty, just not from 45 rpm records by Black men born in Mississippi.
Today I am 63 and if you know anyone (or think you do) born between May 20 and June 21 you don’t need me to tell you that you’re never alone with a Gemini.
Take it from Dylan, who observed, “I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.”
I’ve had some close calls over the years. How was I to know that the dark and slippery street was not the road home but a boat ramp into the Magothy? Or that the adage “if one is good than two are better” is not a recipe for longevity. I am both happy and grateful to still be around.
My father, who doesn’t get around much anymore, tells me I am young. He hasn’t lied to me yet.
I am, however, experiencing things in late middle age that a kid (if they are lucky) is unable to conjure. More on this in a moment.
On my 16th birthday, a woman who had no business leaving presents at my door gave me an 8-track tape of Frank Zappa’s “Overnite Sensation” to play in the old man’s canary yellow with black vinyl top ’66 Mustang.
Frank implored and I echoed: “Give me, your dirty love…”
Of the slide guitarist who passed away on my birthday 56 years ago, Zappa said, “Even though Elmore tended to play the same famous lick on every record, I got the feeling that he meant it…that stuff transcends music…it goes beyond good taste into religion.”
In my family (Catholic but not jumping up and down about it), birthdays are a bit of a religion, the day when you get to choose your meal, including the kind of cake you want and the guest you wish to bring along.
There are gifts of course (books and records/records and books), but it’s the meals I remember. Portuguese steak with pan-fried potatoes; blue crabs in spaghetti sauce with homemade pasta; baked rockfish — just about anything my heart desired as Mom and Dad worked shoulder-to-shoulder in the kitchen before serving the meal on good china in the dining room.
On that long ago birthday when Elmore James sent his last riff into the empyrean, Mom made the most memorable cake of all: a turtle in which shredded coconut was tinted green and lathered across the friendly reptile’s curved shell, tiny black licorice dots for eyes.
I remember a steel can (not aluminum, steel, like they used to make on Boston Street) of Baker’s Angel Flake Coconut, a recipe for a “cut-up cake” of a Teddy Bear on the back. Knowing Mom she sent away for the company’s free recipe book of cut-up cakes and picked out the turtle for me.
Now, in the vestibule of collecting Social Security, I’ve finally embraced the slow-and-steady approach of the tortoise over my too-long extended youth as an impulsive hare. And it tickles me to look back on that turtle. I want to tell you they saved the head for me — just like my Spanish grandfather always took the head of the red snapper on his birthday — but I can’t be sure.
Of cooking, Mom says “If I can see it, I can make it…”
She was a hell of a baker: French bread basted with an egg wash, cakes that ran the gamut from Better than Sex (always a devilish smile when she said it) to Jewish apple and carrot; potato chip cookies and Polish raisin bread baked in coffee cans — when the dough rose, the result was somewhat phallic, remarkable though perhaps not better than sex.
Here’s the call back I promised earlier, the thing a kid who can’t sleep the night before his birthday is unable to fathom.
While tonight’s birthday dinner will be at my parents’ house in Anne Arundel County, my folks will be present but not exactly in attendance. Dad, who has not uttered a word of complaint since his health took a bad turn this past Thanksgiving, is in a hospital bed alongside the large living room window where we used to put up our Christmas tree.
Mom, frail, on oxygen but with the heart of a lion, sits in a rocking chair across from him, compulsively telling her husband of 67 years how much she loves him in between asking Alexa to play “Too Young” by Nat King Cole, their song.
Around 6 p.m., she will lay down on the couch across from her high school sweetheart — Patterson Park, Class of ‘52 –– and both of them will fall asleep. It’s been this way for awhile now.
I will be in the garage with my brothers Danny and Victor who are cooking this year’s meal for their big brother. Victor is grilling ribeye with an appetizer of camarones al ajillo de españa the way they do at Tio Pepe on Franklin Street, the site of many an Alvarez family celebration. Danny is making a pineapple upside-down cake and I will stuff my face and tell him, “Just like Mom’s, Dan!”
And maybe next year — when my granddaughter Lake Helene turns two on the first of May — the Brothers Alvarez will take a flyer on a coconut turtle cake.
Rafael Alvarez received a 2021 Living History award from the Baltimore Historical Society. He can be reached via email@example.com