Of Mardi Gras Krewes and King Cakes
February 21st, 2012
01:00 PM ET
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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.

A traditional King Cake is simply cinnamon-spiced dough, with a creamy glaze and purple, green and gold (the colors of Mardi Gras) sugar on top. The colored sugar represents justice, faith and power, respectively.

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.

Catch up on what to eat, drink, do and avoid during Mardi Gras

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Filed under: Bite • Cuisines • Events • Mardi Gras • New Orleans • New Orleans • News • Travel


soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. Rhonda Perez

    King Cakes originated in France. The owners of Nonna Randazzo's Bakery bake a traditional, braided king cake that wins awards every year. Their family started baking in 1965 and they continue the baking tradition. The traditional flavor does contain cinnamon and sugar. For many years, filled king cake flavors have been introduced. Cream cheese filling is popular, as well as pecan praline, apple, lemon, strawberry, cherry cream cheese, others. Nonna Randazzo's serves king cakes year round as well as ships them world wide. They have become a popular for many occasions, birthdays, grooms cakes, holidays, etc.

    February 12, 2013 at 12:08 am |
  2. FormerWaiter134

    It is not true that the person who gets the baby has to buy the next king cake. That's only something know-nothing transplants to New Orleans think. The baby is a year's good luck. The Mardi Gras king cake is not the same as the traditional french version (don't forget N.O. is french, spanish, english, not just french). The only kings and queens during mardi gras are the ones of the parade Krewes. Stop doing your research on wikipedia.

    February 22, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • NOLA native

      Au contraire, bebe. It is indeed tradition that the person who gets the baby buys the next king cake. The writer of the article is wrong about the timing, though...it's not next year's king cake, just the next one. And for the record, I am a native NOLA girl born and raised in Mid-City. Alas, no more king cakes until next year....it's now time for tuna fish sandwiches or seafood poor boys on Fridays!

      February 22, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
      • NOLA native

        PS – not directed at anyone in particular...just a thought: Mardi Gras has never been about the "five letter B word" to natives. That's something that happens in the Quarter by tourists who THINK that's what Mardi Gras is thanks to coverage by CNN and other national networks. For a NOLA native, Mardi Gras is about family, fun, and getting that last chance to eat, drink, and have fun before Lent kicks in which is all about giving up in the name of penance and preparation for Easter. I hate that with the massive coverage by cable, people have begun to think that's what Mardi Gras is.

        February 22, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
      • Margeaux

        From a former NOLA native to a NOLA native; thanks for setting the record straight. when I was a little girl and attending King Cake parties, whoever found the baby had the next party. We also did not eat King cake anytime except in Mardi Gras season; and still do not. . . . and as for raising your shirt for beads, I cannot ever remember anyone doing that in my younger Mardi Gras days. Have some class people, enjoy the season without being stupid.

        February 12, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Louisiana1979

      "It is not true that the person who gets the baby has to buy the next king cake" Since when? It is a tradition, and I know that for a fact. My husband is from the New Orleans area, and it's always been the tradition there, find the baby and you buy the next cake. Quit getting your info from places like Snopes or somewhere else. You obviously know nothing about New Orleans or Mardi Gras in Louisiana for that matter.

      January 30, 2013 at 8:06 am |
    • jules

      Wow, you should really change your handle to "SnootyFormerWaiter134." LIGHTEN UP.

      February 12, 2013 at 7:03 am |
  3. jj

    Booty?

    February 22, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  4. Down by the river

    Im guessing 'bewbs' is the other five-letter b-word of revelry. But i thought we did that year-round.

    February 22, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Bewb Lover

      Year round here, baby!

      February 22, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  5. monkeymix

    King cakes are just not worth the calories.

    February 22, 2012 at 6:58 am |
    • darwtredrr

      Au contraire!

      February 22, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • frieda406

      oh, yes they are, because we have them but once a year. from gambino's. and we live in arizona. delicious. will be ordering one for Easter. can't wait.

      February 22, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
    • Louisiana1979

      Then neither are any desserts for anything else. Give me King Cake and hold the Cobbler.

      January 30, 2013 at 8:08 am |
  6. Slupdawg

    Any of them I've ever eaten have sucked.

    February 22, 2012 at 3:27 am |
    • henry

      The one I had was awesome.

      February 22, 2012 at 7:15 am |
    • Lydia

      Yum, I lived in Louisiana for a year and I thought the authentic ones were delish!

      February 22, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • frieda406

      too bad. you didn't go to the right places.

      February 22, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
  7. Sean

    McKenzie's was always the default spot for king cakes!

    February 21, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
  8. Maureen

    Carnival season ends with Mardi Gras. It began on Epiphany. The Lenten season begins tomorrow.

    February 21, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  9. Kathi O.

    The BEST King Cake is made by Misse's Supermarket, Sulphur, Louisiana. They make plain plus lots of great flavors, including bananas foster and peanut butter cup. Misse's will ship King Cakes Monday through Thursday.

    February 21, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • Jeffty

      I work in Belle Chasse. It may be a worthwhile trip to go to Sulphur to check it out!!!!

      February 21, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  10. KKK

    Krewe,Krewe, Kaaaaaaahchoooooo.

    February 21, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Pixie

      LOL!

      February 22, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  11. henry

    I see no reason why I should show up and shove food in my piehole, I mean after all I didn't even know the woman.

    February 21, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
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