Our firstborn son, Henry, was 11 months old when we took him to visit his father’s extended family in Nebraska for the first time.

There would be a birthday celebration even though he was not yet a year (11 months was close enough for the great-grandparents). They would serve cake.

That sounded like a great plan to me. I love food, and cake, especially. I bake one whenever company comes into town, for every family member’s birthday and saint-name day, and whenever a friend seems to need a pick-me-up.

If I’m being honest, I also bake one whenever I’m trying to avoid something I really ought to be doing. I take care to use high-quality ingredients, choosing organic butter and flour, free-range eggs, and avoiding artificial colors except for the scantest drops of food coloring.

But Grandma had ordered two cakes from the Hy-Vee grocery store down the hill, since her own son, also visiting, would turn 60 the same month. Henry’s cake was small, a mere 7 inches, two layers high, and piled higher with white frosting and deep blue scalloping around the edges. My father-in-law’s was a big, single-layer rectangular one with Cornhusker-red frosting.

On the day of the celebration, my husband’s aunts and uncles gathered at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. We snacked on pickles wrapped in corned beef glued on with cream cheese, then feasted on thick slices of Uncle Charlie’s roast beef, creamy mashed potatoes, and Jell-O salad. These delicacies were a far cry from our usual cuisine, which is generally inspired by organic ingredients from the farmers’ market and our community-supported agriculture box.

I knew there was no way any of this food was organic, but I tried to relax. This was only a brief departure from our normal healthy lifestyle. It helped that those pickles were salty heaven. I suppressed my fears about hormones in the roast beef and tried not to think about pesticide residue in the veggie tray.

At the table, I spooned a bite of mashed potatoes into Henry’s mouth. He was unenthused. I handed him a slice of orange bell pepper, and he was captivated. But I couldn’t convince him to eat anything else — not even Jell-O.

Then, it was time for cake.

That was when I realized what was going to happen. We were going to sit that “small” cake in front of my son and let him have at it. Corn syrup and trans fats be damned.

Before I could come up with a plan, the whole family was singing, and Grandma sat the cake on the high-chair tray before Henry. His expression changed, wide-eyed excitement replaced by brow-furrowed concentration. Determinedly, he plunged both hands into the cake. I cringed when the deep blue frosting squelched through his tiny fingers, the memory reading about behavioral problems associated with food dyes fresh in my mind.

In seconds, he lifted the entire top layer of the cake, then dropped it in his lap, circumventing his mouth entirely.

Henry returned for the second layer, purposefully lifted and thrust it down, directly into his lap. All that remained of the cake before him were a black plastic tray, the cardboard cake board, and globs of frosting that had held the cake in place. Henry worked his fingers around the edges of the cake board, then lifted it before his face in the manner of a priest preparing to break the communion wafer. The cake board was metallic gold, and Henry loved shiny things.

He tilted the edge of the cake board to his now-smiling mouth. The cake had merely been an obstacle to this prize. The grownups all laughed while Henry chewed on the gold cardboard. I thought about mercury and lead and wondered what made the cardboard shiny gold, anyway.

But I smiled as I worried, not wanting anyone to notice my anxiety. As I smiled, I started to feel truly happy. A whole roomful of people stood around Henry, adoring him. This ritual solidified his place in a loving family and added a tale to the repertoire of stories we would tell for years to come.

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