Almost a year ago, Gemma Tao Greenspan was born, and I became a grandmother. I also became the person you couldn’t trust to remember a thing about her own child’s life. When my daughter-in-law, Linling Tao, called to ask when Joshua, my son and her husband, first slept through the night, I didn’t know the answer and couldn’t guess at it. First step? I think it was 11 months. First real food? I don’t remember. I hope it wasn’t cookies, but it might have been. I remember that he did a terrific imitation of a flamingo at 15 months — I know this because we recorded it on our video camera, which weighed almost as much as I did. But did he like green beans? Cod? Chicken livers? Chicken livers! I never thought to make them for Joshua, but I probably should have — all that iron would have been good for him. Taking care of a baby was so full time, so all-everything for me that I couldn’t imagine I’d ever forget a minute of Joshua’s life. But I was wrong.
In some ways, not remembering multiplies the wonder of seeing my granddaughter discover everything for the first time. Gemma started with congee seasoned with ginger, scallions and sesame oil, and then her mom floated bits of vegetables, fish and chicken in the soup. She had a brief flirtation with sardines and oatmeal, and has a continuing affection for very sour yogurt and croissants — flaky, buttery and so easy for baby fingers to grasp and pull apart. She can be fickle, eating something one day and rejecting it the next, but so far her love of strawberries is steady.
Whether she likes cake remains to be seen. She hasn’t had any sugar yet — her parents are saving that taste for her 1st birthday and the cake that I’ll make for her. When it comes to 1st-birthday cakes, my memory is flawless: I didn’t make one for Joshua. We had a big party, and I made the wonderful, boozy, coconut gâteau d’Hélène, a Simone Beck recipe, for the grown-ups and butter cookies for the kids. And so this upcoming celebration cake is a jumble of things for me — I’m moved that my family wants me to make it, and I’m anxious about doing it right. A 1st birthday is a milestone, and the cake is a marker.
I thought about chocolate because I always think about chocolate, but I wanted something brighter for this summer birthday. I had an idea for a shortcake, which I imagined as a tall cake with many layers and a lot of whipped cream; I gave it up when I realized that this was going to be an outdoor party in New York City in August, a potentially muggy month. I thought of classic cupcakes, a natural for a child’s party and something I used to make with Joshua, then decided against them too: I liked the echo with his childhood, but I wanted something that would be all hers.