The Imperfect Art of Imitation

After Bunky’s diagnosis, once we plied her back to health with outrageous amounts of gluten free chicken fingers and banana bread, one of my goals was to help her feel like a normal kid again. No easy feat because every social situation, every family event, is almost always centered on food – and nothing proved more difficult than birthday parties.

flickr credit, Aih

Looks all innocent and pretty, doesn’t it?
flickr credit, Aih

I used to dread bringing Bunky to birthday parties even before celiac because she HATED them. She was terrified of crowds and burst into tears at the first bars of the Happy Birthday song. We made a monstrous error of judgment and had a party for her when she turned two. In a word: disaster. She was fine when it was just a few people, but once the crowd grew she totally freaked.

Here she is before the guests arrived.

Here she is before the guests arrived.


And after.

But the real issue was friend birthday parties, which seemed to pour in after her diagnosis especially when she started preschool. After a few big fails (like the frosted rice krispie treat I packed for a school celebration instead of a cupcake) I realized something pretty obvious: B wanted to be like her friends, which meant she wanted her GF treats to look just like the G ones.

Just try imitating this. flickr credit, clevercupcakes

Try imitating something like this. 
flickr credit, clevercupcakes

I leapt at the chance to right this wrong for my girl. I was determined to make her treats look the same. It couldn’t be too hard, right? Especially for the school parties which were almost always cupcakes. Just get the cake and frosting type from the parent and bake my own version. No problem. Or so it seemed…

My first official attempt at imitation was a double chocolate cupcake with one m+m on top. Bunky was thrilled, as chocolate and m+m’s are her favorite things in the world.

flickr credit, jonathanb1989

My kid’s version of heaven. A sea of m+m’s.
flickr credit, jonathanb1989

I nailed it. Even the teacher was flustered by how remarkably identical mine looked next to the G version. The reality of how close we could have come to a gluten mistake went over my head because I was so thrilled.

Too thrilled. I got a little cocky.

There was just one small problem. People are fickle, especially kids, when it comes to birthday cake. They change their minds. A lot. There was the yellow icing that ended up being green. The vanilla cake that was chocolate. You get the idea.

Don’t get me started on the after school parties with professional bakery cakes shaped like princesses and fairies, decorated with sugar spun flowers and fancy piping along the edges.

Whoa. Bunky would kill for this credit, volantra

Bunky would kill for this cake.
flickr credit, volantra

You would think I’d have caught on by now, that I was attempting the impossible, but no.

The answer found me, finally, at a friend’s fourth birthday party this fall. A whole year after my initial promise to Bunky. This friend’s mom happens to be gluten intolerant and was such a tremendous help and support to me when B was diagnosed. She offered to bring cupcakes from a fantastic bakery, which I accepted, but I also asked her for the cake info so I could attempt a copycat for Bunky.

Purple princess cake. Whoa. All I could do was imitate the yellow cake and make some pretty purple frosting. That would have to be enough.

For some reason, though, I became obsessed with this cake. My mind went in circles about the princess theme, and how or if I could possibly make my slab of cake look special. Then the morning of the party, I had a sudden realization. It wasn’t possible.

My princess cake would not look like the birthday girl’s princess cake. This understanding stung. After all, I had been trying for a year to perfect my imitations, but I also felt something that surprised me: a sense of relief. I could let go of trying for perfection that was clearly unattainable.

The next day when we arrived at the party, the first thing I heard was another family oohing and ahhing over the gorgeous princess cake. I steeled myself, shaking off the cringe that automatically shot onto my face, and walked over to say hello. As I approached the table with the cake I couldn’t believe my eyes. It wasn’t purple at all, but pink. Pink!

The mom, who did absolutely everything to make sure all the snack food was safe for my girl, said her daughter changed her mind at the last minute. She was sorry she didn’t tell me. I brushed it aside, no problem, it’s okay. And it was, obviously! But my insides quaked as I took in Bunky’s expression. She asked me in a quiet voice why the cake wasn’t purple. I kept my tone neutral when I answered. The moment passed and the party was wonderful, filled with lots of friends, a cool princess art project that Bunky loved, then pizza, Udi’s for my girl, and cake. There was an issue with finding a gluten free fork of all things (note to self, bring flatwear) but Bunky ate her entire, rather large, purple frosted square and the cupcake my friend brought her. Around her all the other kids dove into their pink squares. I saw B watching, but the other kids were watching her too. Not everyone had two desserts.

She was happy. It was okay. I know she noticed the cake, though, because later I heard her describing it in vivid detail to her dad. How pretty it was. How pink.

But now I finally got it. This birthday party opened my eyes to what seems so obvious. No matter how hard I try to make my girl’s cake look the same, I can’t. No matter how much Bunky wants to be the same as her friends, she can’t. Because she’s different.

I’m going to have to explain this to her sometime soon. I will tell her our cupcake may not look exactly like the gluten one, but that’s okay.

Because it’s going to taste awesome.

flickr credit, Theresa Thompson

flickr credit, Theresa Thompson

26 thoughts on “The Imperfect Art of Imitation

  1. The thing about celiac is that it doesn’t go away. It is with you forever. As parents, we see it affecting our kids in different ways as they change and grow. My daughter says she hates vegans (with which she is often confused out in the world) because they have a choice. Today I bought some mozzarella from Joe’s Dairy on Sullivan Street in NYC. Last time I was there the salesperson was eating a sandwich and then served me. This time there was bread all over the counter and bread dust on the scale as she weighed out the cheese. I was so thankful that my big girl is miles away so I don’t have to tell her she can’t have it…

    • Oh Laura, you’re so right. I see that it’s going to be endless, this celiac-mom learning curve, because like you said, as our kids grow older they are presented with different kinds of challenges.

      I’m glad you don’t have to tell your girl about the cheese. I know my daughter, who is a HUGE fresh mozzarella fan, would be crushed if she couldn’t eat one of her favorite foods because of cross contamination. Sigh.

  2. I took a Wliton Cake decorating class at my local Jo-Ann Fabrics and can make something very cool. I buy various small toys and figures that I can stick in the top. Also, I hide a surprise candy in the cupcake like a peanut butter cup or a hershey’s kiss, something that my son looks forward to finding as an extra treat!

    • That’s so great! I love the idea of taking a cake decorating class. I’ll have to look into that, especially with my daughter’s birthday coming up… I wish I lived closer to one of those huge craft stores. I’ll have to go when I’m in New Jersey visiting my dad. Surprise candy sounds great too 🙂 thanks for the ideas!

  3. I have also come to the realization that I can’t make everthing OK. I use to despise birthday parties also….all pizza, cake and gluten crap everywhere. UUGGG!! My daughter was diagnosed when she was eleven, two years later I hear her tell people “no thank you, I can’t have that” and I think….this is for the rest of her life!! As a teenager she can’t work for the fast food industry or any restaurants….and what about dating?

    But I have learned to step back and let her naviate her own way around. It embarrasses her if I make a big deal and at thirteen she is well aware of what she can and can’t have. Lord forbid if there are boys present, well then of course she’s just not hungry (I think that’s most girls though).LOL

    I know in my heart this is HER journey and she will have to make it work for her. When she gets discouraged I tell her ……It’s just food honey! We can make you healthy by just changing your food. Some people are on medicine the rest of thier life or have to have multiple surgeries, some have to wear insulin pumps or lord forbid chemo pumps. For you IT’S JUST FOOD 🙂 and tadaa….your body becomes healthy!!

    But what I wouldn’t give to be able to make it all OK!!!!

    • Stephanie, this response is so right on for me… It all comes down to what you wrote, how we, as moms, can’t make everything okay for our celiac kids. It’s heartbreaking, and moms of non-celiac kids have that too – but in different ways. I remember my mom saying she wished she could wrap me and my brother in bubble wrap to keep us safe.

      Thank you for sharing your wisdom about your older daughter. I feel like I may need to revisit your comments in a handful of years. Your advice about stepping back sounds so right, especially for an adolescent. But hard, too. I know it will be for me.

      And your last line sums up my feelings absolutely. I’m grateful of course, but what I wouldn’t give to make it OK.

  4. I know what you mean about the birthday parties. Our worst birthday party experience was when the kid next to Meredith who was devouring the gluten filled cake reached her contaminated hand over and grabbed Meredith’s GF cupcake. She was in tears. Luckily I had an extra in case she wanted two. The kid commented that the GF cupcake was better than the other cake. Go figure…we’re trying to make it the same and ours is better!!

    • Okay, you do get the foresightful parent award, wow, two cupcakes! And congratulations on not freaking out at the grabbing kid, which you clearly did not, since the child still could express an opinion….

    • You are a better human than myself, I know I would have totally caused a scene! That definitely sounds like a horrific experience. Your poor daughter. Lucky for her she has an incredible and totally prepared mom 🙂 It’s funny, I notice that too sometimes, kids eyeing my daughter’s treat with envy.

  5. Hi Dana,
    I love how honest and candid you are in your posts. Being an adult with celiac disease is so challenging at times, I really don’t know how all of you mothers of kids with celiac do it.
    My mom owns a cake decorating and candy making business and I worked there when I was back in college. Despite this, I am horrible with cakes, and cupcakes, and making things look nice. When I try to decorate a cake, it looks like a 3 year old did it!
    My son Tommy turned 5 a few weeks ago and I made and frosted a GF cake. I showed it to my 7 year old, Grace, before I put candles in. She asked me where the decorations were and I realized that I had totally forgotten to decorate it at all! It was my lowest moment ever with cake decorating, and despite feeling like a bad mom or serving an undecorated cake, it was liberating.
    I also wanted to let you know that we made your banana chocolate chip muffins this afternoon and they were awesome. We ended up making 12 large ones and there are only 2 left! Thank you. Do you mind if I share the recipe on my page if I credit you?

    • Thank you so much Jess for your kind words. I do love the irony of you having worked in the cake decorating business and yet it’s still a challenge. I must say that makes me feel better 🙂 Even before celiac, I was never great at making stuff look good. Geez, the pressure of being a mom nowadays!

      I’m SO happy you and your family enjoyed the muffins! I’ve made two more batches since writing that post and they are gone. I would be so pleased for you to share the recipe. Crediting me is great, just throw in a link back if you can.

      Random bit of info that I will add to the post, I just made the recipe using regular (cow’s) milk instead of coconut milk. It turned out fine, though I think the texture was a bit different. I prefer coconut milk, but good to know if you run out there are other options!

  6. You are so amazing to try so hard. And G imitation is NEVER easy! But the best part about this whole situation is this: kids are resilient. Even though we want them to have the same cake as the other little ones… As B gets older- she’ll come to understand that THAT stuff makes her sick. My little guy- Ty (7)- is as big of a shock to me as anything we have encountered on this Celiac road. He has actually taken charge of making sure his snacks are GFree and that we have a GFree alternative to his friend’s birthday cake. Once I started putting a little bit of his diagnosis in his own hands- he RAN with it. I’m not saying to turn your baby loose at a party and expect her to make the right choices for her- but maybe start letting her have a hand in it- have her help you make her dessert or have her at least pick out what goes on/in it. Kids are amazing… and full of surprises!

    Love you! Keep on with the new recipes! I love them!

    • Jess! So great to hear from you 🙂 Yes, you’re totally right about kids being resilient. That’s what saves me at the end of the day. I know, or suspect at any rate, that my heart is breaking a thousand times more than my daughter’s. I feel like I really finally “get” what my mom went through, what any mom goes through, when her child is feeling different or left out.

      Your Ty is an amazing kid, truly. I do think it’s important and great for our kids to help take control of their food stuff. B does like to bake with me and we talk about the birthday party treat beforehand, I just think I need to fess up to her that it’s not going to look the same and that it’s ok.

      Gotta catch up on your blog and your adorable kiddos!

  7. Aw Dana.. this post melts my heart. There will come a day, I assure you, when this no longer is a problem. Not because differences will seize to exist, but because there will be so many of them that being different is the norm. We can probably thank chemical additives and manipulated foods for much of it, globalisation for the rest. The diversity of our society is on a fast incline, and we will adapt. Bunky is no more different than the rest of us, just different in another way.

    I love this post for it’s heartfelt sincerity, I can read your puzzled expression. Well done you! Bunky is such a lucky little girl, and you are a lucky lady for all the new impulses and challenges she has introduced into your world!

    Coeliacs disease is a far cry from what I dreamt of as my destiny, as i’m sure was the case of your wishes for Bunky, but it has changed my life for the better in a million ways too. I’m introduced to so many facets of life that were never apparent to me before. It has become a well of opportunity rather than the big fat obstacle I first imagined it to be.

    I’m sure you will be able to show her the incredible wealth of opportunity this “difference” has given her. Given all of you in fact. Perhaps coeliacs disease isn’t a curse, but a gift 🙂

    x, Kristine

    • Thanks so much Kristine for all your kind words and advice. I think you’re right, soon enough Bunky’s difference won’t be all that jarring once more and more people are diagnosed.

      I do feel like having celiac, or a kid with celiac, makes you take charge of your health and life in a more intense way. Which I think ultimately is, or can be, a good thing. I hope my girl will be embracing of other people’s differences in part because of her own. It’s part of who she is and I want to help her handle it with grace.

      Having the outlet of this blog, and generous compassion like yours ! really helps me get through my part of this journey.

      • She will be just fine, and you are doing better than just fine. Think only of all the creativity that has sprung from her condition! Imagine too all the people Bunky has already touched through your writing. -Why don’t you tell her that 🙂

        You just keep shining that fierce little light of yours, and the world shall be a better place for it.

  8. Wow, you are doing so much for your little girl. I think, although it’s difficult the best thing is to put yourself out there as much as possible. Be around temptations and help Bunky to resist and then when you get home have a treat. The other thing is, and I know at a younger age it’s hard to make kids aware, but sometimes having food that looks different or perhaps having no cake at all is a good thing.
    It’s good for your daughter so she knows that not everyone is going to accomodate her but also as she continues to grow, her friends will begin to look out for her. I’m much older than Bunky, and all my close friends know I cannot tolerate gluten. Whilst out for a friend’s birthday I had to ask the waiter if he could check the ingredients of the salad dressing and told him my allergy. He didn’t report back (which my friend noticed) and soon came with the meal, dropping it down and swooping off. I looked up and saw my friend watching me like a hawk to make sure I didn’t touch that food. He then waited to start until I had a chance to check with the waiter. Friends can be a great help and, like the other day may even be stand in line for 2 1/2hrs and be dragged round the gluten free expo!
    Perhaps sometimes less is more, if you help her realize that when she’s out and about there won’t always be the same as everyone else (something I still have to reminder myself of) and to embrace the difference. Now when I can’t have cake I think “this is a good thing as I don’t feel guilty and have to work this off tomorrow”- it’s the little things that get you through. My sister’s friend, also celiac always carries around a GF energy bar or other snacks, etc to soccer. I don’t even think the other kids notice the difference.
    Basically, what this is all trying to come to is there’s no magic solution. My personal thing would be to build a resilient kid. So she is able to cope with and carry on when there is not exactly the same food or any decent sounding food for that matter. A a gluten free vegetarian the amount of times I’ve eaten a salad when we’ve been out for dinner… But you know what it’s either that or you go hungry. It sounds tough but you’re only going to drive yourself crazy or feel inadequate when things don’t go as planned. So building a “just go with it” attitude into Bunky will help you both in the future…and but the sounds of your recipes it sounds like at home your doing a pretty top notch job. I’m sure if Bunky doesn’t get cake,etc at a party but gets her favourite treat instead at home after a few parties, she won’t mind the different coloured or non-existent cupcake because she has something to look forward afterwards. (Also, I totally get its hard to instill that mentality in a young kid.) Good luck!

    • Hi Chloe, thank you so much for your response. It sounds like you have really wonderful friends. I hope Bunky also is that lucky as she gets older. Right now she has a close friend in her preschool class who has nut and egg allergies and the girls really stick together. I feel great when I can make a treat that is safe for both of them.

      Building a resilient kid is definitely key. I want her to be able to handle her food differences with grace, but also to know that it’s okay to feel a range of emotions about it. Some days it may be no big deal, while others not so much.

      Thanks again, and good luck on your GF journey!

  9. ok so i am reading this as the gluten intolerant mom who hosted this bday party without enough forks and with the awesome stepmom who made an enormous cake but changed the color without mentioning it because why would she?! dana, sorry about the forks and about the color change but I also watched emma rock that party despite the snafus. thank you for being there and always making it work. as you learn and share you help everyone around you become more aware and better for it.

    • Oh lady, I hope you read the post knowing how AWESOME I think you are!! Forks schmorks, you know it happens. Who would think you’d need a gluten free area for forks? 🙂 And yeah, she really did rock that party! She had a blast, and it was such a learning experience for me. I had no idea it was your step mom who made that cake, by the way! And incidentally changed the color 🙂 Thank YOU for helping me so tremendously during those first harried weeks of B’s diagnosis, and then being such a support and empathetic touchstone for so many challenges along the way.

  10. Pingback: (How to) Come Together | celiac kiddo

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