Your palms are sweating and your heart pounds against your chest. As you walk into your office you feel proud about the box weighing down your arms. You’re looking forward to a morning and afternoon treat of a particular sugar high. These good emotions begin to mix with dread as you think about the first question everyone will ask:
“Where’d you get that King cake?”
Hundreds of years have preceded this moment, from pastry to brioche to your basic sweet roll dough, the “King’s Cake” celebrates the Magi greeting little baby Jesus and Epiphany. Twelfth Night officially starts January 6th and the Mardi Gras season.
Included in the revelry and chaos is cake. A lot of cake.
The now-traditional New Orleans-style cake is an oval ring pastry served either plain with sugar icing or filled with different flavors such as cream cheese, praline, or coconut for the Zulu Krewe (who throw coconuts during their parade). The icing is tri-colored: PURPLE for "Justice," GREEN for "Faith," and GOLD for "Power”. By most accounts the colors were decided in late-19th century by the New Orleans Krewe of Rex, the oldest parading krewe.
New Orleans turns into one massive festival ground with parties stacked up on top of each other throughout the two week festival season. Included in the partying is the ritual of bringing King Cake. There are many rituals and social structures surrounding the breaking of bread during this time of year. Over hundreds of years the cake was baked in remembrance of the three kings visiting Bethlehem and the dried bean baked inside represented Jesus.
Today, each cake is sold with a King Cake “baby” or a version of a doll. Traditionally, that baby was an unbaked bean or ceramic doll and literally baked into the bread. Now, when you purchase cakes you will typically get a pale-skin or gold plastic baby about 0.5 inches long to poke into the layers of pastry from underneath.
Imagine a party with booze flowing, laughter in the air, and you grab a slice of soft, sugary cake off the table for a quick pick-me-up. You bite down and -- DOINK -- your teeth grind down on an inedible object. Pulling it as politely as possible from between your lips you pull out a naked, miniature baby doll.
Well, historically, you would have been treated as “king for the day”. Similar to the birthday rules of celebrating one person, you would get to designate the party playlist, primo parade positioning within your group, and whatever else you desired (hey, it is Mardi Gras).
Now, the ritual has switched scripts and the lucky king cake baby receiver is designated next party host and King Cake purchaser.
Mardi Gras is an evolving tradition (believing to originate first in Pagan stories and then shared to Christianity) so the social rules surrounding its events are still evolving. There are some groups where the King Cake baby recipient has to buy the next cake or don’t bother showing up to the party. Whereas others groups are much more relaxed since, during the festival season, you may not see that group of people again, but bounce around to other parties, parades, and people.
Above all else remember the boldest warning of all: Don’t eat King Cake at any time except Ephiphany or there will be rain on Mardi Gras Day.
Laissez les bons temps rouler!