My team surprised me with a cake made out of my favorite snack—twinkies! Looking forward to all this year has in store. pic.twitter.com/lQfyIrQ9Qe— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) March 12, 2019
The other day, Utah senator and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney tweeted a video of his staff presenting him with a homemade cake, a Stonehenge-like array of Twinkies, for his 72nd birthday. But instead of leaning over the cake to blow out the candles with a dramatic huff and puff, like most people, Romney daintily plucked each candle out of the Twinkiehenge and blew them out, one by one. I can relate: Growing up, members of my family didn’t let children blow out the candles at birthday parties; instead, the adults dipped each one in a bowl of water.
People jumped at the chance to mock the senator’s “bizarre” candle extinguishing method, calling him awkward and even “deeply weird.” But Romney’s candle-blowing technique is not all that strange — just more sanitary, if science, and common sense, are considered. A 2017 Clemson University study, published in the Journal of Food Research, showed that blowing out candles the standard way, over a birthday cake, increased bacterial levels on the cake by some 1,400 percent. It concluded: “Due to the transfer of oral bacteria to icing by blowing out birthday candles, the transfer of bacteria and other microorganisms from the respiratory tract of a person blowing out candles to food consumed by others is likely.” In other words, you’re almost definitely swallowing tiny globules of the birthday haver’s spit and whatever else is mixed with it.
The standard method for blowing out candles is the weird ritual here, blessing a birthday cake with the dispersion of hot slobber, spreading who-knows-what microorganisms — influenza and the common cold are commonly spread by such fluid droplets — to family, friends, and frenemies alike. Senator Romney might have been caught on tape doing some inappropriate things — remember the 47 percent comment? — but how he snuffs out his birthday candles is not one of them.
Maybe I’m biased: The germophobe in me has always shuddered at the tradition of people blowing all over food before handing it out. Birthday cakes aside, when food appears at the office, I’m the person who resorts to unorthodox techniques to avoid touching the bits I’m not eating, using napkins to rip apart pizza slices, or forks to divvy up unwieldy pastries. When I see co-workers ripping, pulling, breaking, and adjusting communal food, I take a piece from the other side or lose my appetite altogether. At parties, I shift the bowl of chips around before taking one from the bottom (with a napkin, of course). And yes, I’ve been called out for it.
The social sanctioning of people who deviate from social norms, even with good reason, isn’t a surprise. Food rituals have significance in social bonding and relationships; in the case of birthday cakes, Smithsonian magazine reported that the practice of blowing out the candles makes people enjoy the cake more, with studies showing that the ritual creates a special moment that gives people a warm and fuzzy feeling — which, it turns out, might just be the signs of a fever coming on.
Vince Dixon is Eater’s senior data visualization reporter.