Mardi Gras literally translates to Fat Tuesday, indicating a period of feasting before fasting. The signature treat of that Carnival feast is, without a doubt, the King Cake. Between bites, one might wonder how this ‘o’ shaped, sugar coated, baby-packing sweet came into existence. The history of the cake is braided with Carnival’s history, and for that, it’s necessary to look back to ancient times.
Like many contemporary western holidays, Carnival is believed to have its roots in ancient pagan festivals. (Halloween from Samhain, Christmas from Yule). Carnival had two influences, Lupercalia and Saturnalia. Set in mid-February, Lupercalia celebrated rushing in the fertility spring, both for the coming harvest and humans. Saturnalia, celebrated in December included the ritual of temporarily switching the hierarchical roles through a bean hidden inside a cake.
The French Galette des Rois
The bean hidden inside the Saturnalia cake was the fava bean, and he or she who found it would be temporarily crowned ruler for the day. This ancient legume was considered magical in pagan times, blessed in monotheistic times. As ancient civilization gave way to medieval civilization and Christianity became the predominant religion in Western Europe, people still clung to their traditional celebrations, but the significance shifted.
Larousse Gastronomique notes that “During the Saturnalia the ‘king of the day’ was chosen by lot, using a bean concealed in a galette. It was only in the Middle Ages that this cake ceremony began to be associated with the festival of Epiphany.” January 6th became the day of the Epiphany. The holiday commemorates the twelfth day after Christmas, when the wise men followed the star of Bethlehem to the nativity and bring baby Jesus gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. The Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day, marks the beginning of King Cake season in New Orleans.
Three Kings day was celebrated in various Medieval European countries. Francophone countries had the Galette des Rois. Spain had the Rosca de Reyes, Portugal the Bolo Rei. The French cake galette is a flaky, golden, puff pastry with frangipane inside. Food historian, Pierre Leclercq, believes that this cake is very similar to the Saturnalia cake, given its hue and shape that reflect the sun.
In France, the cake continued to be baked with the object inside, but to distance itself from its pagan roots, the custom became to put a small, ceramic crown instead. During the French revolution, a time when kings were being beheaded, playing king for the day was a politically volatile act. In 1794, Paris’ revolutionary mayor is quoted as having incited his people to, “discover and arrest the criminal patissiers and their filthy orgies which dare to honor the shades of the tyrants!” Soon after, the French custom became to have a variety of ceramic charms, though they still bear the name of the original fava bean: la fève.
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.
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.
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.