My offbeat affections carried over into my food choices, too.
My Dad was a sailor, which meant my family bounced around like a pinball. One of my earliest memories involves a giant hog being lifted from its earthen oven at a luau in Pearl City, Hawaii. I remember eating and enjoying that fattened beast.
But like most kids, I was headstrong about food. My Dad occasionally could get me to budge from my ingrained habits. He once got me to wear a bib after he said Chester Nimitz wore one. I ate sloppy Joes when he mentioned that Woodrow Wilson enjoyed them. Martin Van Buren was a fan of Brussels sprouts? Bring me a bowl!
There was one thing, however, that no amount of prodding could get me to touch. I did not eat cake, perhaps the only child on the planet who didn’t. I hated the gritty, spongy texture, which made my mouth feel uncomfortable. Nor did I care for the saccharine frosting that always made me slightly queasy.
This posed a minor problem on birthdays. My folks would buy elaborate cakes with police or Navy themes to entice me. The only part I enjoyed was making the wish before blowing out the candles.
I’d take a bite just to be polite and then lay my fork aside. Dad would prod me to eat more. William Halsey liked cake, he’d say. No go. Calvin Coolidge ate tons of it, he’d argue. No sir. At birthday parties this all made my friends happy. They had more cake to eat.
Then one June, Dad had an idea.
I loved watermelon. Each Saturday in summer, I would go to the commissary with Mom and rummage through the watermelon bin and find the choicest, roundest, heaviest melon. Then at night, I would eat half my prize, and my family would divide the rest. Dad put salt on his, which I considered a great affront. Salt was for slugs.
Watermelon had a perfect kind of sweetness, and after a long day playing outside, its juice was refreshing. As an added benefit, I could spit the seeds into my sister’s hair whenever she turned the channel from “Cops” or “Rescue 911.”
One birthday, I was at the kitchen table and noticed no cake. Dad appeared from the kitchen bearing a watermelon slice from which a candle flickered. Just before blowing out the flame, I remember feeling relief. I wouldn’t have to fake my appreciation for another square hunk of chocolate awfulness. I never blew out a birthday candle faster. That flickering wax was keeping me from my watermelon.
I turned 25 last week and did not tell my bosses at the Food section until I was ready to leave. I dislike the hullabaloo over a day I don’t remember.
Bonnie Benwick, the deputy Food editor, chided me. “You should have told us. We could have baked a cake,” she said. I confessed my gustatory past and the Smith family tradition.
Two days later, she and Food editor Joe Yonan concocted a compromise: watermelon birthday cake. He and Bonnie sliced a watermelon into thick circles, each slice slathered with a mascarpone/creme fraiche/cream cheese/cherry-liqueur frosting, then topped with different fruit. Blueberries. Cherries. Strawberries. Pineapple. Blackberries. They stacked the slices like a layer cake, cherry cream oozing between the gaps. They decorated the top with candied walnuts and fresh mint.
When the staff gathered, they looked at the watermelon dessert oddly, and I explained the circumstances.
One colleague said that was pretty weird. What kid didn’t like cake? The watermelon dessert, though, didn’t stand erect long before my colleagues tore it apart. I returned for three helpings, something I never experienced with a real birthday cake.
After about 15 years, the Smith family birthday tradition may finally be amended. If I may paraphrase the oft-misquoted Marie Antoinette: Let them eat watermelon cake.