It’s positively medieval. South Louisiana traditions – most of them, in fact – are firmly rooted in old European medieval customs that followed the early settlers to la belle Louisiane and remain intact to this day. The Mardi Gras King Cake is one of those. We all recognize the wreath-shaped sweet bread with the purple, green and gold sugar sprinkled liberally all over the top. In addition to cream cheese, peach, cherry or apple preserves, stuffed somewhere inside the delicious bread is a little plastic baby. Odd and enigmatic, just like everything else about our culture, this gaudy, frivolous pastry has a centuries-old story to tell.
The season for King Cake starts on Twelfth Night (the twelfth day after Christmas), and lasts through Mardi Gras Day. During this time, Haydel’s Bakery on Jefferson Highway in New Orleans will likely bake more than 60,000 king cakes. New Orleans has always been the heart of king cake production in Louisiana and Haydel’s one of the premier king cake bakers.
The Mardi Gras king cake is more accurately known as the kings’ cake. It is baked to honor the gifts of the Magi, the three kings who gave gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus on the twelfth night (the Epiphany) after his birth. In some Mediterranean cultures, it became custom during the Middle Ages to give gifts on Twelfth Night to children, as did the three kings.
Church pageants involving equestrians, ornately costumed as the Magi (masking for Mardi Gras!), paraded (Mardi Gras parades!) through the of streets of medieval Franceanywhere there was a sizable church or cathedral. The procession ended at the steps of the cathedral as the celebrants presented their gifts (Mardi Gras beads!) at the Christmas crib.
Families celebrated the last day of Christmastide by baking a kings’ cake to represent the Magi. A coin (Mardi Gras doubloons!) was placed inside the cake and the person who received the piece of cake with the coin was declared “king.” The custom was later expanded to include a bean and a pea, making the respective finders “king” and “queen.” In medievalFrance the lucky coin finder was expected to make a contribution to the education of an underprivileged child or some other worthy cause.
The French kings’ cake tradition was brought to New Orleans and as the tradition evolved, it was not unusual to substitute the coin with a tiny toy baby, which may represent the Christ child. Whatever the object may be, the one to receive this piece is bestowed with both an honor and a responsibility.
Modern traditions hold that the person who receives the cake piece with the baby is required to buy a kings’ cake for the next gathering, and so on throughout the season. (I really like the modern tradition.)
It’s true that Mardi Gras can be a last debauchery for some before the penance of Lent. But it is so much more. Those who know our history, tradition and custom know that to partake in the kings’ cake, Mardi Gras balls and parades is to dance with the ghosts of our forbears. When we eat our kings’ cake, we eat with our ancestors. If you know us, you know this: our revelry is ancient and intense, unlike any other.
Source–The Haydel’s Bakery history scroll by Monsignor Henry C. Bezou, included in every king cake shipment.
This information was cross-posted from lanote.org, a NolaVie content partner.