Why King Cake Matters to New Orleans Even Though It Isn't Always Good
It’s a week or so into New Orleans Carnival season, and the Uptown coffee shop is decked out in its springtime color scheme—splashes of purple, green, and gold. Just after dawn, the Monday morning nursing school study group trickles in, pushes a few tables together, and waits for stragglers. The early birds are already in position and partially caffeinated when a colleague approaches and points to a bakery box on the table.
“It’s from here. Apple cream cheese. It’s pretty good. Take a slice.”
The student, clad in medical whites and matching clogs, flips up the cardboard top to reveal an oversized breakfast pastry—a flattened circle of cinnamon-laced dough, covered in white icing and topped with a crunchy layer of colorful confectioner’s sugar.
“Not just yet, I need to wake up first.”
The pastry—known as a king cake—is an inescapable part of life in south Louisiana, where locals celebrate a “bonus holiday season” in the lead-up to Mardi Gras Day. (The temporal math gets complex here, since it requires squaring three calendars—Jewish lunar, Catholic liturgical and modern Julian—so let’s just say the simplified season runs January through March and be done with it.)
Through Mardi Gras Day is an official state holiday in Louisiana, it’s particularly popular in the historically Catholic region that hugs the Gulf Coast. After New Year’s Day, you’ve got a few days to recover before the Mardi Gras/Carnival season kicks off and king cakes make their annual six-week appearance at house parties, parade gatherings, and (most importantly) office break rooms.
“Oh man, this one is SWEET. What’s your favorite?”
“I like ‘em sweet. I always get the strawberry cream cheese from Gambino’s. My mama likes the regular from Manny Randazzo’s.”
The cake itself is both simple and completely over-the-top, a tarted-up cousin to Aunt Martha’s “company coming over” coffee cake. Over the years, local bakeries and pastry-related concerns (doughnut shops, fancy-dress restaurants) developed a wide range of styles. The first level was “stuffed,” wherein the pliable dough is infused with rich cream cheese, fruit jams, praline concoctions, or flavored pastry cream. (Keeping in mind that the icing AND garishly colored sugar toppings are largely non-negotiable. It’s important to stick to tradition.)
King cake has become an inescapable icon of Carnival season, partially because of its inherent seasonality (come Ash Wednesday, no more cake) and also “Who the hell doesn’t like a nice cake?” And because now any good idea becomes a widely applied “concept,” burger joints have king cake milkshakes, baristas pull king cake lattes, and doughnut shops dress their standard offerings in tricolor king cake drag. Fancy bakeries trot out a “more refined” French galette du roi, which only confirms the lowbrow cake’s cultural supremacy.
In its everyday form, king cake is sugary, tawdry, delicious, and on the razor-thin border of vulgarity. Every year we thank god that laws don’t require calorie counts on the seasonal treat. In its pure form, is it objectively good pastry? Not really.
And a followup question: Is it possible to NOT eat king cake that’s right in front of you? No way in hell.
“Hey Linda. It’s apple cream cheese. Help yourself.”
“I really shouldn’t. Looks good though. Who got the baby?”
But the kicker is both performance art and the key to to the tradition’s endurance. It involves a tiny plastic figurine (a conceptual representation of a nekkid baby Jesus) that’s hidden inside the cake before serving. As one cuts their slab from the cake, one must be cautious of a potential inedible passenger and its traditional consequences.
If you take a big bite of cake and find a lumpy plastic child caught in your teeth, the assembled crowd (also with cake-filled maws) sends up a cheer. The baby-biter gets a hearty round of applause, and is bound by honor and tradition to buy a king cake for the next gathering (parade party, poker game, costume night, or study session).
And that’s part of the beauty of it. Participating in the tradition contains an inherent festive gamble— and one that ensures that until the season ends abruptly on Ash Wednesday, there will always be another cake. It’s the circle of life in action—with the sugary highs, the inevitable lows and the exhilarating flirtation with insulin shock.
As the study group goes through its paces—test schedules, section assignments, requisite professor gossip—and slowly works its way around the ring. At session’s end, nobody gets the baby, and it’s time to go about the business of the day.
“Anybody want some for the road? I’m closin’ the box. Last chance.”
“Well, it’ll keep in the car, right? I’ll just get a little sliver for later.”