Every year on Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, everyone in New Orleans eats King Cake, a traditional sweet bread that commemorates the “king” Jesus and celebrates the pre-Lenten season.
Lisa O’Neill, a Tucson resident who grew up in New Orleans, has eaten King Cake “since I was born,” she said. “We would have a King Cake in our house in constant rotation from January 6 through Mardi Gras.”
O’Neill’s family purchased King Cakes from local New Orleans establishments like Haydel’s, Gambino’s and Randazzo’s — family businesses that have been making King Cakes for generations, O’Neill said.
The original recipe is a doughy cinnamon bread, braided together and covered with purple, green, and gold icing — the colors of royalty and symbols of justice, power, and faith. Today King Cakes also come with special fillings, such as cream cheese, pecan praline, apple, blueberry filling, O’Neill said.
The King in the Cake
King Cake traditionally commemorates the Epiphany observed by Christians on January 6, also known as Kings’ Day. It’s the day Jesus became known to the world, when three outsiders met him for the first time, O’Neill said.
King Cakes in France, Belgium, and Quebec are known as galette de rois — a flaky pastry filled with apple or frangipane or a brioche filled with candied fruits. In Latin America, roscas de reyes are decorated with dried fruits suck as figs or cherries to symbolize jewels in the king’s crown.
Baked inside of a King Cake is a small figurine of a baby to represent the baby Jesus, the King of Kings. Originally the babies were made of porcelain or metal, O’Neill said, but now are made of plastic.
O’Neill says she remembers how fun it was as a child anticipating getting the baby. But at the same time, she says, “It was kind of a love-hate thing because of the obligation that came with it. Whoever gets the baby has to provide the King Cake for the next celebration. “Sometimes if you got it and no one saw, you would stick it back in the cake.”
Laissez les bons temps rouler
New Orleans is the epicenter of Mardi Gras, a holiday representing a celebration of excess, opulence, and decadence, O’Neill said. The fiesta is the last celebration before Lent — a time of fasting and repentance before Easter restraint.
“King Cake is the food representation of this opulence,” O’Neill said. “How big can we go? How far can we take this? How spirited can we be?”
O’Neill, a freelance writer, acknowledges her home city has “a complicated history of erasure, prejudice, and racism.” But Mardi Gras is a way for New Orleans to say, “For this moment, let’s realize that we’re alive and together.”
One motto of Louisiana is “Laissez les bons temps rouler,” which is translated from the Cajun French,as “Let the good times roll,” and speaks to the spirit of the season, she said.
Mardi Gras includes costumes — loud sequins, wigs, tutus — dancing, and music. For weeks before the official “Fat Tuesday,” parades happen through town with crowds gathering on the sidelines to watch clever and creative revelry.
“You stake out your spot that morning, or even the night before with tarps or ropes,” O’Neill says of the big parades. Many parents bring ladders with special seats on top for children to see over the crowds and catch beads and stuffed animals tossed by people on floats. When she was a child, O’Neill’s parents rigged up a bicycle seat for her to sit atop the ladder.
Mardi Gras floats often offer political or social commentary, O’Neill says, and can be irreverent.
For O’Neill, who is also a musician, the parades offer a chance to hear marching bands from local high schools. “Particularly the brass bands from African-American schools are so amazing. That’s part of why there are so many wonderful brass bands in New Orleans: high school students learn and then carry it into their musical careers,” she explains.
And of course, food is always a part of the celebration. Some of O’Neill’s favorites include caramel corn, peanuts, Zapp’s potato chips, red beans and rice, gumbo, and jambalaya.
Home Away from Home
This year, O’Neill stayed in Tucson and was sad to miss Mardi Gras in New Orleans: “I need that buoyancy, that solidarity, beauty, and cleverness, and to be around smart artful people.” She decided to hold a gathering in her home.
Her mom sent two King Cakes from New Orleans.
If you don’t have family in Louisiana, you can still find King Cake. In Tucson, several bakeries sell the sweetbread early in the year.
Beyond Bread sells a King Cake based on a traditional recipe of cinnamon dough with sugar and sour cream topped with a glazed sugar icing of traditional colors. It is formed as a circular twisted braid and comes with the traditional baby baked inside as well with Mardi Gras beads on the side.
“It’s all made by hand and it takes about a half a dozen people to make one batch,” said Jane Overbey, Beyond Bread’s outreach coordinator.
The bakery sells “hundreds and hundreds” of King Cakes every year from early January through Mardi Gras, Ovebey said.
Nadine’s Bakery in Tucson also offers King Cake, a variety of cinnamon danish topped with green, yellow, purple sugar. The “king” is made of sugar and offered on the side for customers to insert into the cake on their own.
Maybe eating King Cake — with all its sugar — can help people experience the decadence of the holiday, at least for a moment.
But in New Orleans, there’s no escaping Mardi Gras, O’Neil said. “The city completely orients around this festivity for two months. You have to surrender to it. There’s this euphoric feeling, a momentary suspension of your own worries and of those of the world.”