A Short History of King Cake's Long History

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Louisiana’s celebration of Mardi Gras is as old as its founding. In 1699, French-Canadian explorer, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, landed on the soil 60 miles south of what is today New Orleans. Coincidentally, the day he landed was the eve of Mardi Gras. He named the land, “Point du Mardi Gras,” and celebrated Fat Tuesday that very week.
New Orleans was established in 1718 by Iberville’s younger brother, Bienville. As the area grew, so did its carnival celebration, with Louisiana’s governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, introducing society balls in the 1740s. Rex Krewe was founded in 1872, and their colors – purple, green, and gold – became adopted as the official Mardi Gras colors.

The Spanish and Latin American Rosca de Reyes

Still, the New Orleans king cake is very different from the French one, both in taste, and in trinket. The NOLA cake, in fact, is more similar in form to the Spanish Rosca de Reyes, as they are both tortells with colorful decorations on top, and sometimes with filling in the middle. In an interview with NOLA.com, president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, Liz Williams, highlights the southern French immigrants that had a cake more similar to the Rosca de Reyes. An alternative theory points to the Spanish influence in late 18th century New Orleans.

Classic New Orleans King Cake, courtesy of Caluda’s King Cakes

Tourists on a French Quarter tour will learn that the architecture of the quarter is actually more Spanish than French, given that the original Vieux Carré buildings burnt down. The Spanish governed New Orleans from 1762 to 1802, and rebuilt the quarter with their style of architecture. Perhaps the New Orleans King Cake similarly drew from the Spanish influence.

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Haydel’s Frozen Charlotte Commemorative Charm

The plastic baby is emblematic of the Gulf Coast King Cake. Two schools of thought exist: one side insists that the baby is supposed to be the baby Jesus, while the other side vehemently disagrees. Up till the late 1800s, the fava bean was still used in this King Cake. In the Victorian Era, it became commonplace to bake a Frozen Charlotte into cakes. The Frozen Charlotte is a creepy, naked, ceramic statuette of a little girl. The figurine is based off Seba Smith’s 1843 ballad, which tells of young Charlotte freezing to death because vanity kept her from bundling up when going on a sleigh ride. Oral tradition tells that, in the late 1800s, Frozen Charlotte began appearing in New Orleans’ King Cakes. In 1990, Haydel’s Bakery made a commemorative, limited time, Frozen Charlotte charm for their cakes.

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The signature plastic baby, photo courtesy of Robert Giglio

As for the plastic baby, the famed commercial bakery, McKenzie’s, was the first to insert them. In a 1990, Donald Entringer Sr., the late owner of McKenzie’s gave an interview to The Times-Picayune, in which he said that in the mid-1900s, “We were the first to use the babies. A salesman came in one day and said, “Look at this cute little thing. It won’t get lost like a pecan or a bean.’”

He discounted the belief that the baby is Jesus. “I’ve heard people say it’s supposed to represent the Christ Child, but that’s not true,” Entringer said. “Why we picked this, I don’t know. It was cute. It was just a trinket that happened to be a baby.” In many Latin American countries, where the Spanish colonialists brought the tradition of the Rosca de Reyes, the tradition is to put a baby in the cake, and indisputably that baby is meant to represent Jesus. Perhaps the baby in the New Orleans King Cake was originally not meant to have any religious symbol, but given the religious nature of the cake and the religious holiday it celebrates, it is easy to see how it has come to mean that. Considering the fava’s original symbol of fertility, the baby can also be viewed more broadly as a less subtle symbol of renewal of life.

The plastic baby served outside of the cake, photo courtesy of Sam Hanna of Sucré

Another point of contention is that, in the recent years, the baby is appearing outside of the cake rather than in it, as bakeries wish to avoid the liability of causing a choking hazard. But there’s one Mardi Gras rule everyone can agree on: whoever finds the baby is responsible for providing the next King Cake. No one said being king was easy.

Madina Papadopoulos is a New York-based freelance writer, author and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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