Originally Published: February 19, 2018 5:59 a.m.
Last week to usher in Mardi Gras, my friend invited me on Fat Tuesday to a ladies luncheon and served King Cake. Dear Readers, this is a very weird looking cake (sort of bready with thick purple, green and yellow frosting smeared on top) that also contains a choking hazard. That’s right, chew slowly, check carefully and don’t swallow too quickly because if you are the lucky one, you will have the plastic baby Jesus inside your slice.
I had heard about this New Orleans tradition but had never actually participated. It was quite thrilling because when we were all eating our cake, a lady screamed like she had won the lottery! Yes, she had bit into the baby Jesus and now would be “crowned” (or she might need a new crown for her tooth) and given the solemn duty of having to bake next year’s King Cake. I wanted to learn more.
The King Cake dates back centuries to European pagan festivals, in which a bean would be hidden inside a cake. In Medieval France, the cake — by then known as “galette des rois,” or King Cake — became associated with Christianity and Epiphany, the annual commemoration of the wise men’s visit to Jesus at his place of birth. The hidden bean of the older tradition remained, but as a symbol of Jesus.
From France to Louisiana, the King Cake, with its hidden bean, was brought along as a cherished tradition. Then a traveling salesman approached a New Orleans bakery in the 1950s. It seems he had a huge supply of little plastic babies. Why not place one in every King Cake as the baby Jesus and forget the bean? A new tradition was started and lives on today.
New Orleans is a magical place, and Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, is always the day before Ash Wednesday. So last week was the time to eat, drink, party, indulge in cake and watch the parades. And throw those beads. Why purple, green and gold? Purple stands for justice, green for faith and gold for power. And the folks of New Orleans (and the visitors) love those beads.
Sadly, in 2017 the City of New Orleans had to clean up 46 tons of Mardi Gras beads that were clogging the water catch basins and rolling down the drain to the sewers. Hey, this is a city below sea level and has had flooding issues! Stop throwing those beads! At least people don’t throw the plastic baby Jesus from the King Cakes; that would be a very disturbing sight.
There is something “a world apart” about a visit to Louisiana. But you don’t have to travel far if you have a few friends who like to bake. Throw a plastic baby in the batter, and when you take the cake out of the oven, smear purple, green and yellow frosting all over it (sort of looks like a child’s art project). Then add the same color sprinkles to make it look even more delicious (gaudy).
Mardi Gras has by now passed for this year, but not all the fun. Bake a cake, shake some beads, celebrate, and if you are lucky, you will find Jesus.
Judy Bluhm is a writer and a local Realtor. Have a story or a comment? Email Judy at firstname.lastname@example.org.