Nothing says “happy birthday” like a big-ass doughnut

Today is my elder son’s twentieth birthday, and I write this with a birthday songs playlist ready to start as soon as I hear him get up. His mom just left to get what we think will begin another tradition: The Pandamonium Birthday Cake Doughnut.

Panda logo
The Pandamonium Doughnuts logo, making mouths water since 2013.

Long story short, one of my co-teachers and her husband started Pandamonium Doughnuts (check out their Instagram feed), an artisan doughnut company, and now it’s A Thing. Their food truck is brilliantly awesome, and their doughnuts are spectacular. They cost a lot ($2-3 apiece) but they’re made from fresh ingredients daily, and each is a handmade work of art. Flavors include Bacon Maple Fritter, Fresh Raspberry, Earl Grey Tea and Meyer Lemon, or Nutella Royale. They rock.

Pandamonium doughnut truck
Kids in a summer camp I run visit the Pandamonium truck.

The Pandamonium truck visits sites around Champaign-Urbana on six days per week, most of them to the area of the University of Illinois campus. My elder son studies Engineering at the U of I, and he faithfully treks across campus for a doughnut at least once per week. He’s a fan. This morning, he’s going to get his first-ever Pandamonium Birthday Cake Doughnut. It is the first, but I am willing to be it won’t be the last. Next birthday up in our family calendar is my own (April), and I expect I might have one for breakfast too. And so on.

That’s the nature of tradition. We do things all the time, rarely thinking much of most of them. Sometimes, though, a Thingwedo strikes us as good, meaningful, and worth repeating. Then we repeat it and it becomes a tradition. That’s the formula; simple as that. Folklorists will stand by this. It’s gold.

Back to birthdays. I write this blog post while my wife treks downtown to get the big-ass doughnut. Will he wake before she returns? Will there be bites out of it before he gets to it? These are new things to worry about on birthdays in my household.

A small drink is for savoring

Years ago when I was in college, I was in a special singing group at the University of Illinois called The Other Guys. In one year, we sang a hundred or more shows in the Midwest, on the West Coast, and in Europe. It was an exhilarating time for the eight of us.

On a trip to the San Francisco area, we sang for a distinguished group of Illinois alumni and had a ball hobnobbing at the St. Francis Yacht Club on the bay. We felt like big shots. Although we had a sumptuous dinner there, I can’t for the life of me recall a single thing we had. The food was surely good but must have been unremarkable. We were among strangers.

What I do remember well, and it made a sizable impression on me, was a single shot of espresso.

The scene:

My best Other Guy friend, Mike, and I were hosted for two nights by a husband-wife pair of surgeons who lived on a swanky ridgeline overlooking the city and bay area. The first morning, we arose to find a lovely breakfast on a spare table facing an entire windowed wall. Beyond the glass were the city, the bay, and the distant mountains:

View of San Francisco from Diamond Heights
The view at breakfast was much like this.

The male Dr. M. (host) invited us to sit and produced a single shot of piping hot espresso for each of us and himself. They were presented in the little ceramic demitasses customary for espresso, each accompanied by a pair of sugar cubes and a sliver of lemon rind. Neither Mike nor I had ever tasted espresso, so Dr. M. gave us a tutorial:

First, twist the peel to break the cells and rub the oils on the rim of the cup. Check.

Second, sip the espresso carefully—it’s hot!

Third, hold a cube just so one corner contacts the surface of the coffee. Watch it leech upward to saturate the cube (fascinating). Decide what you want to do: either drop it into the cup or pop it into your mouth.

Finish what remains in peace and contentment.

In that way, we shared wonderful, warm conversation and learned a little bit about savoring—a strong, flavorful treat, a view, one’s companions, and an everyday moment that can be special every day. This was a big lesson for me which I try to employ as regularly as possible.

Pic of mocha maker
A good moka maker. Italians differentiate between moka and espresso.

FWIW, I don’t have an espresso machine (I’m holding out for a real one, a very expensive one). I do have an Italian mocha brewer. It’s an excellent and inexpensive stand-in. I’m still waiting to get that Diamond Heights view out my own window.