Carnival season ends Tuesday with Mardi Gras, and for the past eight days, partygoers have taken over the French Quarter in New Orleans, reveling in beads, booze and well, that other five-letter b-word.
For those of us looking for a way to celebrate Fat Tuesday from the comfort of our homes or the lameness of our offices, have no fear. There is a cure to the “I’m-Not-in-New-Orleans” blues and it’s called the King Cake.
The popular pastry is rich to the taste buds but it’s also rich in history, explains Arthur Hardy, the self-proclaimed "World’s Foremost Authority on Mardi Gras."
Hardy says the exact history is not certain, but like many things in New Orleans, the King Cake is believed to have originated in France as part of the Feast of the Epiphany, a celebration for the three wise men who visited Christ twelve days after Christmas.
The first King Cakes were baked in a circle shape to represent the circular route the wise men took to get to the Baby Jesus, in an effort to confuse King Herod, who planned to kill Christ. A hidden bean or gold coin was hidden inside the cake and whoever found it would be granted with good luck in the coming year.
Hardy says that like automobiles, the King Cake has “evolved over time.” Bakeries have taken creative liberties with the cake, adding flavored fillings and toppings. The coin or bean has been replaced with a plastic baby representing the Baby Jesus. Whoever finds it is deemed the “King” or “Queen,” but finding the baby also comes with a bit of responsibility - buying the next year’s King Cake.
Which bakery makes the best King Cake is highly contentious, and usually a matter of personal taste, Hardy says. An informal, non-scientific survey taken of the New Orleans natives I know yielded the same names of bakeries claiming to make the “best” – in no particular order: Haydel’s, Gambino’s, and this year’s winner of the Times-Picayune/NOLA.com best King Cake contest, Randazzo's Camellia City Bakery.
Regardless of favorites, there is no question that King Cakes are big business in New Orleans. Hardy estimates more than 750,000 are consumed annually, most of them during Carnival, and they're one of New Orleans’ biggest food exports.
While Hardy says, “there are no rules,” and there doesn’t have to be a reason to enjoy a King Cake, when it comes to eating one outside the Carnival months, purists like him say doing so is “frowned upon.”
“It loses its meaning,” Hardy says.
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