King Cake: a Tradition of Mardi Gras

T oday is Mardi Gras, which is celebrated especially along the Gulf Coast of the United States from Galveston to Pensacola; and although New Orleans is best known for the annual events of the Carnival celebrations, the original location in North America of the organized events occurred in the Alabama city of Mobile and eventually in Biloxi — once the capital of Louisiana and now a city in Mississippi — before the capital was moved three years later to New Orleans in 1723.

D’Iberville — now a suburb of present-day Biloxi — is a city in Mississippi named after Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, who launched the tradition of the events of Mardi Gras in North America with Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville.

King Cake: a Tradition of Mardi Gras

Along with many of the traditions and customs associated with the celebration of Mardi Gras in the southern United States is what is known as the king cake — which is arguably more of a sweet bread or type of roll than a cake — typically shaped in the form of a ring; flavored with cinnamon; and topped with a sweet glazed icing and granules of sugar colored in green, gold and purple to represent the official colors of Mardi Gras and the respective ideas of faith, power and justice.

King cake Mardi Gras

The inside of a king cake. Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

Hidden inside of a king cake is a small figurine representing a baby Jesus Christ, usually comprised of plastic or porcelain. Whoever finds this baby inside of a king cake is considered fortunate and may even be designated king or queen for the day — but also may be responsible for purchasing or baking the king cake and hosting a party for Mardi Gras during the following year. Due to the potential hazard of a child choking or swallowing the baby, it is sometimes placed outside of the king cake rather than hidden in it.

The New Orleans Baby Cakes — a minor league baseball team for the Miami Marlins which was originally known as the Zephyrs — derives its name from the king cake. If you take a close look at the official team logo, the O is in the form of a king cake.

Summary

Having been born and raised in New York, I did not taste my first king cake until I was an adult who visited New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast for the first of many times — one of them being involved in the cleanup efforts after the region was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — and I have experienced the parades in New Orleans where the streets were crowded, music played everywhere and caught beads and other items which were thrown by members of krewes aboard floats as they passed by…

…but I have also been fortunate to have sampled — all right, outright eaten — homemade king cakes; and they are delicious. To me, they taste similar to what New Yorkers would call a coffee cake; but with more of a bread texture than a cake texture. King cakes are typically not too rich or sweet.

If you have not tried a king cake yet, this time of year is the time to do so — especially if you happen to be traveling to New Orleans or cities such as Mobile or Biloxi…

…and Happy Mardi Gras if you celebrate it!

All photographs ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

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