Birthday Butchery

Dear Helena,

At birthday parties, it seems to be tradition for the person celebrating his or her big day to be obligated to divvy up and dish out the cake. Frankly, by the time the cake is usually presented, I’ve had more than a few drinks and am quite relaxed. At that juncture, my cake-cutting skills—which are lacking to begin with—leave the once-elegant baked good looking rather like a natural disaster has struck.

Not to sound ungrateful, but I really dislike cutting my own birthday cake, and I generally ask someone else to do it on my behalf. My request, however, is often met with confused stares like I’ve committed some sort of dreadful faux pas, when really all I want to do is enjoy my birthday and allow someone with a little more slicing skill to take a stab at it for the sake of elegance.

My question is this: Why is it tradition for the birthday celebrant to cut the cake, and is it indeed rude to ask that someone else handle it? —No Cutting and Knife Expert

Dear No Cutting and Knife Expert,

Unfortunately there’s no neat historical explanation why the birthday boy or girl is the one to cut the cake. But the symbolism seems similar to when a bride and groom cut their wedding cake: That cut represents them starting a new life together. You’re embarking on a new year.

But, after you’ve made the first cut, it’s perfectly OK to ask someone else to dish up the rest. It’s your birthday and you should do whatever you want. Usually, birthday guests include one or two nurturing types, who enjoy cutting up and handing out cake.

If you’re having your celebration at a restaurant, they’ll likely cut the cake up for you, and charge you a fee, which covers service. Ted Kilpatrick, the manager of Radius in Boston, where the fee is $7 per slice, says: “You’re paying for the dish, the table, the nice presentation. The pastry chef plates each slice with a scoop of ice cream.” The fee also covers lost revenue, explains Julie Sproesser, general manager of Prune in New York: “If they’re bringing dessert, it means we lose the sale at the table. It’s sort of like a wine corkage fee.” Call it a cakeage fee.

Now that we’re on the topic of birthday cakes in public places, I have a few other things to say. If the party takes place in a bar, don’t let the remains of the cake sit around. People will inevitably pick at the frosting, just because it’s there. Pack the cake up after everyone has had his fill. Someone, usually the birthday celebrant, can then enjoy whatever’s left.

Magic relighting candles might be amusing to the birthday celebrant, but it’s not very nice to eat cake that someone has vigorously blown on several times. Go for old-fashioned candles.

Finally, if you’re partying at a bar, consider cupcakes. They’re less festive than a whole cake, but you won’t need to bother with disposable plates and forks. With a cake, you’ll also need to find an empty table to set it on, which can be challenging in a crowded bar. But with cupcakes all you need to do is hand them out, no cutting necessary. And the only cake the birthday celebrant blows on is his or her own.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.