If Marie Antoinette ever suggested that peasants eat cake instead of starving from lack of bread, it would indicate an overwhelming extravagance which elevated her to an obscene level of disillusionment. Although she was isolated from the plight of the everyday peasant, it is unlikely that she was so utterly clueless. It was more likely a powerful propagandist rumor intended to topple the monarchy. Heads rolled.
But, while we are on the subject of cake, let’s dig in. King Cakes are traditional symbols of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. When I arrived, people recommended certain places to get the best King Cake (Sucre, in particular), but I didn’t pay much heed to their suggestions. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the advice, but rather that I’d had King Cake before and didn’t realize why it would be special or different.
One of my oldest and best friends is Mexican-Italian, and I was invited to her home often for the yearly Baby Cake Day (a.k.a., Epiphany) with her family. It seems strange that we’ve known each other for decades. We would eat tamales, drink Abuelita hot chocolate (with the faint taste of red hots), and take turns cutting pieces of cake to see if we got the little plastic baby enclosed therein. Whomever revealed the baby (Jesus) would be the host of the party the following year! That was only in theory, though – my friend’s mom loved hosting the party and added extra babies to the cake because it was fun for people to discover them. It was all about time with family, and the friends who became family.
Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the three Kings in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus. Every evening on January 5, my friend and her sisters would leave a shoe downstairs with little treats for the Kings. Some families also left a note for the Kings, or bit of hay in the shoes for the Kings’ animals. When the sisters woke up on January 6, they would each have a present from the Three Kings. My friend is one of three girls, so they each had their own King per their birth order. The oldest sister has a little girl now, who also leaves a shoe out for the Kings.
I didn’t go to church on a regular basis while growing up, and I’m not Catholic, so I was always a little confused by the order and meaning of certain events. Let’s start easy: Christmas is December 25 and represents the birth of Jesus. Boom – got it. Proceeding from that point required research. January 6 is the Twelfth Night after Christmas (shout out to Shakespeare), and is also Epiphany (as stated above, the arrival of the Three Kings to honor Jesus). Sometimes it falls on January 5 instead of 6; not sure how that works. The plastic or porcelain baby hidden in the King Cake represents the holy family fleeing and hiding from King Herod. In some traditions, whomever found the plastic baby in the cake would take it to church on February 2 (Candlemas Day) to celebrate the presentation of Jesus in the Temple; other traditions would have another party with tamales on February 2. I’m sure that people also combined these activities – church then tamales (yum). Carnival, the season of the King Cake, lasts from the Eve of Epiphany until Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is always 47 days before Easter Sunday, and is the day before Ash Wednesday. Carnival features several parades, balls and other events, and culminates in Fat Tuesday as a last hurrah before the beginning of Lent.
To be thorough (and I am nothing but thorough), I looked into what happens after Mardi Gras because it is often cited as a reason (or rationalization) for the frivolity of Carnival season. Lent is the 6 weeks directly before Easter, and is traditionally a period of rigorous fasting and sacrifice as an homage to Jesus fasting in the wilderness. It lasts from Ash Wednesday until Holy Saturday, and contains 40 weekdays. Nowadays, it is often marked by Catholics temporarily giving up (perceived) vices. On Ash Wednesday, the foreheads of parishioners are marked with ashes in the sign of the cross to symbolize mortality, repentance and the dust from which we were made. Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter and commemorates the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem days before his death, reportedly riding a donkey over palm fronds that were placed respectfully in his path. The Holy Week includes Holy Thursday (the last supper/Eucharist), Good Friday (the crucifixion), and ends with Easter Sunday (the resurrection). The season of Easter lasts for 7 weeks, and ends with Pentecost. This is the most research I’ve done on religion since college, and I’m slightly exhausted. I didn’t investigate Pentecost because it seemed too far off the egg-beaten path from cake.
Although different regions may share the religious and historical foundation behind King Cakes and the Carnival/Mardi Gras season, there are distinct differences in the cultural development of ornamenting and enjoying King Cake. Mexican King Cake is bready, and is topped with crusty icing and candied fruit representing the jewels on the Kings’ crowns. The cake itself is sweet but slightly dry, and tastes best dipped in Abuelita hot chocolate. I enjoy it because it is yummy, but also because it reminds me of my close friend, her family, and the times we shared at their home. I thought all King Cakes were like this.
So, when I finally tried New Orleans King Cake, I was completely unprepared: layers of danish dough and cinnamon combined delicately, often containing a cream-cheese filling. Decadent; with a capital D. While the Mexican King Cake is bready and akin to a fruit cake, the New Orleans King’s Cake is similar to a pastry. In addition, the New Orleans King Cake is decorated with a layer of sweet icing in the Mardi Gras colors – purple, green and gold, to represent justice, faith and power, respectively (some say that the colors represent truth, loyalty and royalty, but I’ll hold myself back from getting nerdy and pedantic about some of the profound differences between those two lists of qualities). Although the plastic baby began as a representation of Jesus, for many it now symbolizes luck or prosperity, and makes the finder the “king” or “queen” for the night. Interestingly (and non-judgmentally), this changes the dynamic of the King Cake activity from inclusiveness of a group or family, to emphasis on an individual.
When I return to New Orleans, I want to try one of the specialty King Cakes – with goat cheese and apple filling. These are not sold by the slice, so one must buy the whole cake. I was gun-shy to buy an entire cake when I lived there, but after writing this article, I’m simply jonesing for it!! There is a myriad of fillings for King Cakes – Nutella and raspberry, the traditional cream cheese and cinnamon, and even boudin and bacon – but I go where my flavor profile guides me. In addition, there are claims that the New Orleans King Cake is overwhelmingly sweet. To those naysayers, I recommend shopping around.
I was not in New Orleans for Mardi Gras because I had to get home for an oil and gas conference. However, I still participated in Carnival festivities! On my last weekend in New Orleans, I went to a parade by the Krewe du Vieux (pronounced Voo). The Krewe is known for being crass and quite raunchy, so I only featured one photo of a float in this post. Krewe du Vieux is also notorious for handmade floats featuring political messages and satirical commentary on current events. There were quite a few effigies of President Trump, for example, and I saw my tipsy homegirl, Marie Antoinette, chilling on one of the floats and checking her cell phone. There were at least two fantastic brass bands among the many floats and sub-krewes, which were just as enjoyable as the floats themselves. I love live music, and they were excellent bands.
Mardi Gras throws – such as beads, doubloons, and cups – have come under fire in recent years due to cumulative litter issues, the possibility of lead leaching from the beads, as well as labor conditions in Chinese manufacturing of the beads. According to the LA Times, an estimated 25 million pounds of necklaces are distributed to New Orleans each year. The city and parade Krewes have become aware of the results of their excesses, and slowly started making a change. Krewe du Vieux did not have any general throws to the crowds, but rather handed the throw items to people along the parade route. Not all of the Krewes have adopted this policy.
Perhaps if we are made aware of our excesses, we will attempt to fight habit and tradition. Maybe if we don’t know the nature of poverty or that cake is simply sweetened bread, we can learn. It could be that if we forgo our vices for six weeks, we will discover that we don’t need to return to our previous choices. Just maybe, we can change the way we do things. And hopefully, we can do better. That being said, never ever, and I mean never, tell me the calorie and fat content of King Cake. We all pick our own battles.
– Your huckleberry
P.S. – Thanks to the following sources: Sucre website (www.shopsucre.com) and storefront located on Magazine; Mardi Gras New Orleans website (www.mardigrasneworleans.com); and a Catholic website (www.catholic.org). In addition, I learned from news articles: (www.nola.com/arts/index.ssf/2013/12/are_there_unsafe_levels_of_lea.html), and (www.articles.latimes.com/2012/feb/15/nation/la-na-mardi-gras-beads-20120216). Any errors or omissions in the telling of my story belong to me, not these sources.
P.S.S. – If you read my last post, first: thank you; second: I indicated that I would be publishing a final picture post about living in New Orleans. I changed my mind.