I waved goodbye to my early thirties this week. In case of any argument, that means I am now 34, despite the unsurprising insistence of many 34-year-olds that mid-thirties does not start until the grand old age of 35. This is more widely known as “denial”.
I love birthdays, especially other people’s. My eldest is in his second year of infant school, and as a result he gets invited to an inordinate number of parties, most of which involve a bouncy castle, and they tend to be a “blue job” in our house (as opposed to pink jobs like the ironing). It is impossible to grow out of bouncy castles: what most adults develop over the years is a well-honed sense of shame, which prevents them boarding anything inflatable in front of the other parents. I, thankfully, have no such inhibition, happily discarding any pretensions of dignity for the primeval joy of repeated gravity violation.
The one niggle constantly at the back of my mind however that leaps forwards when I find myself under a pile of my lad’s classmates is nothing to do with shame. As most women will attest to, most men have a childish element to their personality, and I differ only in that I am a little less restrained in exhibiting it than many; I love the rough and tumble that kids adore. But the spectre of the News of the World will live long after its demise, and there is a cultural paranoia surrounding men playing with children. Scroobius Pip‘s musical exhortation “thou shalt not think that any male over the age of 30 that plays with a child that is not their own is a paedophile… some people are just nice” (from Thou Shalt Always Kill) is unfortunately not a commonly shared view, and I am acutely aware both that I have to be careful not to overstep a line that is ill-defined and that sadly, but inevitably, some people will be suspicious of my motives. It won’t stop me allowing my inner 6-year-old out to play, but it does stop many, and I think our kids are the poorer because of it.
As an adult, birthdays are usually an entirely more sedate matter, and indeed as many people get older they allow birthdays to slip by quietly, attracting as little attention to the passing of the years as humanly possible. Much of this slipping by quietly has in my view been engendered by the strange role reversal that the modern office environment has created. Perhaps this is an old-fashioned mindset, but I always understood the protocol to be that gifts are proferred to the individual celebrating the event, indeed that they should be given a little special treatment for the day. Yet somehow this has undergone a complete volte-face and you can expect to be roundly derided if you turn up to put in a shift on your big day without having brought in cakes for everyone.
Now just hold on a minute. The idea of birthday cakes is of course not new – but it is more a token of gratitude from the host, distributed amongst party guests, in recognition of both their presence and (with any luck) their presents. How that has morphed into a quasi-legal obligation to provide a variety of sugary elevenses for your work colleagues, most of whom won’t even have known it was your birthday – and few of whom will have prepared a card, let alone a present – I can’t quite comprehend.
While I am not quite having a party this year – what with not being at the end of a decade, which seems to be the only acceptable excuse for having a proper party once you get past 21 – I am having an Oriental-themed dinner party instead, and I am looking forward to it immensely. It won’t be a big affair – three other couples, the parents of some of those classmates I spoke about earlier – but I will be donning a kimono, cooking several dishes with origins across the Far East, and supplying enough Asahi, Tsingdao and Singha beer to bring out everyone’s inner six-year-old.
The menu will include this chow mein that has been a staple part of our diet for a couple of years now, but in the interest of variety, I’ve given you below the recipe for the Oriental broth that will start the meal.
Oriental broth (serves 2)
- 1 pt vegetable stock (I’ve taken to using concentrated liquid stock and it works particularly well in this soup)
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 50g shiitake mushrooms, washed and thinly sliced
- 1 Little Gem lettuce, washed and finely sliced
- 1 small egg, beaten
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
- 20g dried vermicelli
Bring the stock and cayenne to a boil. Add mushrooms and simmer for 2 minutes. Lightly crush the vermicelli into the pan and simmer for another 3 minutes. Add the lettuce, bring the broth to a rolling boil, then take it off the heat and gently stir in the egg to form threads in the soup. Stir in the coriander and serve immediately.