WHAT IS A KING CAKE?
During the winter, when western cities get a leek and potato over-dose, New Orleans indulges in King Cake.
King Cake was introduced to the States by the Spanish and French in the 1870’s, who all celebrate the Epiphany – the 12th day after Christmas when The Three Kings brought gifts to Baby Jesus. This catholic festivity –which sounds a lot like Mary’s “baby shower”– is nowadays celebrated with cake.
The European way to consume King Cake is usually only on Jan 6th, but in New Orleans the party goes on until Mardi Gras, which marks the beginning of Lent. NOLA has seen this catholic tradition significantly evolve, thanks to the debauchery of bourgeois French and Spanish families, influences of Sicilian immigrants and spices from West Africa. This culinary mix resulted in what we now call the Créole cuisine.
The traditional Créole cake is a ring of twisted cinnamon dough topped with icing and gold, green and purple tinted sugar (the colours of Mardi Gras that symbolize power, faith and justice). While its shape is similar to the colourful southern European “gâteau des rois”, rather than the northern French “galêtte des rois”, its taste is sweeter and specific to the city.
Adding sugar to everything has become a normality since the 18th century, as African slaves in French-owned plantations would produce spectacular amounts of sugar on the River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Since then, King Cake has become the sultan of all candies.
What makes the King Cake so much fun is its trinket. Whoever finds it in their slice becomes King or Queen for the day and has to purchase the next cake – but that last custom is very distinctive to New Orleans. While in Europe, the trinket is a classic porcelain figurine, in New Orleans it’s a porcelain or plastic baby that is meant to represent Baby Jesus. This may seem weird to some, but it actually makes sense considering celebrators are commemorating the Three Wise Men’s mission to find Baby Jesus by looking for him too!
Sadly, things changed in 2012. The FDA decided, for safety reasons, to sell the trinket separately and not include it in the cake, as some have choked over it in the past. #PartyPoopers
Many variations have appeared with time, especially after Hurricane Katrina, when the number of sold King Cakes rose significantly, as the feeling of community solidified. One bakery even shaped their cakes like trailers – which became part of the cultural landscape after the hurricane. Since then, New Orleans has become a real food lab and hasn’t stopped creating new unusual King Cake flavours –as well as King Cake based dishes.
New Orleaners: We suggest you give up King Cake for Lent.