UNCOVERING NEW ORLEANS’ KING CAKE JUST IN TIME FOR TWELFTH NIGHT
The king cake is a tough pastry to pin down. Where did it come from originally? Who is responsible for its success in New Orleans and its ties to Mardi Gras? What is it made of? What’s with the plastic baby?
Investigating these questions I found myself confronted by a series of complex histories and intricate, often dubious stories involving bakers, beans and kings, all wrapped-up (in dough) with intermingling sources of religious symbolism. The deeper I delved the more nuanced the story seem to become.
The designation of a “king” that comes with the finding of the plastic baby in the cake, in fact stemmed from medieval Twelfth Night mock-royalty customs. Those customs had, in turn, descended from the practice of selecting a ‘Lord of Misrule’ in ancient Rome to preside over the festival of Saturn, which in even earlier times included the unhappy duty of being sacrificed after a year. Not quite what I was expecting from the history of a tri-colored ring of dough.
Throughout the cakes’ evolution the role of the plastic baby was alternately filled by a rotating cast of knick-knacks including (but by no means limited to) collectable porcelain figurines, golden beans, nuts, coins, peas and even diamond rings. The king cakes were, in varying cases either made all through yuletide celebrations, just throughout the twelve days of Christmas until the Feast of the Epiphany, or only on the sixth of January. It seemed I couldn’t get a grip on the pastry’s story. The cake and the traditions surrounding it had been appropriated and reinterpreted so many times that I was no longer tracing the history of just one pastry.
But circling back to New Orleans Mardi Gras traditions, I realized that amid a celebration of masks, exchanged identities and upended social conventions, what could be more suitable than a cake that, throughout our history, has worn so many hats? It’s sweet, doughy, sprinkled in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of gold, purple and green, and it’s utterly delicious. And if your surliest coworker happens to bite into a plastic baby, it’s just one more reason the king cake deserves to reign on.