There’s no food more synonymous with Mardi Gras in New Orleans than king cake. The ubiquitous Carnival dessert is beloved by every New Orleanian and as soon as the Epiphany rolls around in early January, king cakes can be found in bakeries, homes, and restaurants across Louisiana. However, for those of us not blessed enough to grow up with second lines and the concept of lagniappe, king cake poses some interesting questions that need answering.
Who is the king?
Like most Mardi Gras traditions, the “king” in question can be traced back to the Bible. Representing the three kings who visited baby Jesus on the Epiphany, one’s first bite of the delectable dessert can also be considered a rather holy experience.
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Where did king cake come from?
Brought to North America by the French in 1870, king cake can be traced back to the Middle Ages when the French began baking galette des rois prior to Lent. Roman Christians though are believed to have adopted the tradition from Pagan celebrations of spring and fertility, dating back to a time before drive-thru daiquiris were even a twinkle in New Orleans’ eye.
Why the circular shape?
European king cakes take on a variety of shapes and sizes, but in New Orleans, the classic cake is a twisted ring of brioche-meets-coffee-cake-meets-cinnamon-roll dough topped with a deluge of icing. Although most king cakes around the world are both round and whole, those found in New Orleans are almost always rings. To ask why would question the very nonsensical nature of New Orleans itself, which seems counter to the idea of laissez le bon temps rouler.
Why the trio of colors?
Green (faith), purple (justice), and gold (power) have become synonymous with Mardi Gras, along with a formerly displaced NBA team, but these colors only cemented their importance in New Orleans lore shortly after the arrival of King Cakes themselves. Many date the selection of the three colors to 1872 when the New Orleans Krewe of Rex was formed and selected their official Mardi Gras color palette. However, the meaning of each color wasn't formalized until 1892 when the Krewe of Rex Parade’s theme was “The Symbolism of Colors.”
Why is there a baby inside?
Many have bitten into their first piece of King Cake only to find a small plastic baby, which for anyone not from New Orleans can be a little disconcerting. The baby of course represents Jesus as the three kings saw him during the Epiphany, and putting it in the cake calls back to an earlier practice of including a bean, nut, or coin inside. Per New Orleans tradition, whoever finds the baby receives good luck for the year ahead and is responsible for buying the next King Cake, a delicious double-edged sword if there ever was one.