In New Orleans, when the winter holiday season comes to a close, the party has only just begun.
Louisiana actually observes three holiday seasons in a row. The first spans from Thanksgiving to New Years. Then, the 12th Day of Christmas, January 6 — also known as Epiphany or King’s Day — kicks off Carnival, or Mardi Gras season. Lent begins the day after Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, and ends on Easter Sunday.
While Lent is a time of penance and fasting, Carnival is a time for fun. And though the customs are steeped in Catholic tradition, the holidays are regarded as a regional custom.
To celebrate the start of Carnival on King’s Day (the day the Magi visited Jesus), many New Orleanians rush to procure a King Cake, which are only available during Carnival.
What’s a King Cake you say?
Imagine something not quite the consistency of a cake, but more like a roll or bread. There are multiple options for a filling, popular flavors include plain cinnamon, cream cheese, praline, strawberry, raspberry, apple and lemon.
The braided dough is topped with white icing and colored sugar in the traditional Mardi Gras colors: purple, green and gold. (Tip: If given the choice, eat the yellow. The purple and green sugars stain your mouth.)
A plastic king-cake baby, symbolizing the infant Jesus, is hidden in the cake. The person who gets the piece of cake with the baby traditionally has to buy the next King Cake. So, if you’re cheap, avoid the baby and, most importantly, don’t swallow him. (Tip: The baby is usually in the biggest piece because the person cutting the cake knows the baby’s location.)
When I was a kid, we would eat King Cake at school and the kid who got the baby would bring the next cake. But, in my dad’s day, these King Cake parties were held at home. I should note that my dad is from the New Orleans Ninth Ward, not a suburb like me, and went to a small, Catholic school.
At these parties, there would be a King and Queen, just like big Mardi Gras balls thrown by adults. Getting the baby also ensured royal status at these grade school soirees.
Ninth Ward residents shared memories of these King Cake parties during my oral history interviews. Some of the older participants said a pecan was once used to symbolize the baby Jesus. And others who grew up during the Depression remembered attending King Cake parties with apprehension. If they got the pecan — or baby — their parents could be angry and possibly unable to purchase the next King Cake. Several people joked that their parents said to swallow the pecan and one participant said she would get the last piece to ensure the baby was already taken.
After all these years, King Cakes are still a children’s Mardi Gras tradition and are found almost anywhere during Carnival — coffee shops, drugstores, grocery stores, bakeries and even online. I actually have my own recipe for King Cake Balls on my food blog, The Old Country Blog.