Tasting New Orleans

How the Mardi Gras King Cake Came to Represent the Crescent City

Anthony J. Stanonis and Rachel Wallace, with illustrations by Kristen Solecki

“‘Sometimes it seems like the entire repertoire of New Orleans cuisine is reduced to king cake and beer during Mardi Gras season.’”

In November 2016, the New Orleans Zephyrs announced a name change after fans of the minor league baseball team submitted over three thousand suggestions to a rebranding contest. “Our goal was to give the baseball fans of New Orleans a team and identity they can call their own,” said Zephyrs President Lou Schwechheimer. “New Orleans is full of traditions woven into the fabric of the city, and this new tradition will be something local and iconic and celebrate what makes New Orleans and Minor League Baseball so great: family and fun.” The team became the New Orleans Baby Cakes with a mascot that brought to life the small plastic baby that’s baked into a king cake—a local delicacy synonymous with Carnival. The Baby Cakes wear purple, green, and gold—the colors of Mardi Gras—and the mascot dons a crown shaped like the popular oval cake.1

The Zephyrs weren’t the only team to align themselves with king cake. Two years earlier, the New Orleans Pelicans, a National Basketball Association team, debuted a mascot named King Cake Baby. Understanding these changes, and the popularity of king cake and the plastic baby baked inside, requires unpacking the relationships that link foodways, memory, and identity in New Orleans. As the city’s famed musician Dr. John once noted, “In New Orleans, in religion, as in food or race or music, you can’t separate nothing from nothing.”2

Through Clouds of Flour

Though the king cake likely reflects ancient pagan influences related to the Saturnalia festival, its origins can be traced to medieval Europe. There, Catholic countries celebrated the Epiphany on January 6 and consumed a pastry that contained almonds. The religious holiday marked the revelation of the newborn Jesus Christ as God incarnate during the visit of the three Magi. It also marked the start of the Carnival season, which ended weeks later on Mardi Gras, otherwise known as Fat Tuesday. In France it was celebrated with a pastry called galette des rois, meaning “cake of the kings,” a tradition that the French colonial outpost of New Orleans inherited. In the Crescent City, Carnival celebrations were largely family-oriented events under the French and Spanish and continued after the United States purchased Louisiana in 1803. In 1809, the arrival of some 9,000 refugees from the Haitian Revolution reinforced Franco-Catholic traditions within Louisiana. New Orleans grew from a city of roughly 27,000 residents in 1820 to over 168,000 in 1860, spurred by steamboats and the cotton trade. As such, antebellum New Orleans became one of the most crowded urban centers in the nation, consisting mainly of French Catholic Creoles of black and/or white ancestry, Irish and German Catholic (and some Protestant) immigrants, Anglo-American Protestants, and African American enslaved people who often blended Catholic and Protestant practices with those from Africa.3

Carnival unleashed the urban tensions between these ethnic and religious groups through clouds of flour. A visitor from Britain described the Mardi Gras of 1846, saying, “There was a grand procession parading the streets, almost every one dressed in the most grotesque attire, troops of them on horseback, some in open carriages, with bands of music, and in a variety of costumes . . . All wore masks, and here and there in the crowd, or stationed in a balcony above, we saw persons armed with bags of flour, which they showered down copiously on any one who seemed particularly proud of his attire.” A local told the Brit that Mardi Gras meant “flour and fun.” Some scholars have viewed the raucous dusting as a remnant from Roman festivals, in which flour symbolized fertility. In antebellum New Orleans, it was a commodity symbolic of the agricultural riches that flowed down the Mississippi River to the city’s docks. Tangibly, flour also provided a convenient means of wreaking havoc. Since medieval times, Mardi Gras marked a gluttonous celebration among Catholics preparing for Lent—in Europe and in New Orleans. New Orleans’s version of the festival by the mid-nineteenth century involved private soirees within homes, exclusive balls, and groups of mischievous revelers wandering the streets. City elites sought to control the social chaos and to foster a shared civic tradition by launching the first formal parading society or “krewe,” called Comus, in 1857.4

“All wore masks, and here and there in the crowd, or stationed in a balcony above, we saw persons armed with bags of flour, which they showered down copiously on any one who seemed particularly proud of his attire.”

The king cake gained prominence in New Orleans during Reconstruction, the era when Mardi Gras evolved into a carefully structured public festival. Federal occupation of New Orleans began in April 1862. Enslaved peoples flocked to the city from the sugar plantations along the Mississippi River in hope of gaining their freedom. Emancipation and civil rights legislation after the Civil War challenged white supremacy, and the defeated Confederates responded with violence, most notoriously in a massacre of black political activists at a New Orleans rally in 1866. Organizations such as the Crescent City White League emerged, threatening black voters and their white Republican allies with deadly force. In September 1874, white supremacists in New Orleans launched a coup known as the Battle of Liberty Place to overthrow the Republican-controlled state government. Federal troops, rushed to the city by President Ulysses S. Grant, restored the Republican governor to power.5

The appearance of vigilante political organizations of armed former Confederates coincided with the proliferation of exclusive and secretive Carnival-oriented groups. New krewes assisted Comus in asserting control of the streets and displaying a prosperous city seemingly unaffected by the Civil War. Rex (1872), Momus (1872), and Proteus (1882), the most prominent of the new elite, all-white, all-male organizations, now paraded in the days culminating in Mardi Gras. An observer of these krewes’ processions, which have retained the same style throughout their history, commented, “The huge floats, like gilded and frosted sugar-cake nightmares, trundle in comic magnificence through the crowds.” Another onlooker later described these groups’ floats as “white like frosted cakes.”6

“The huge floats, like gilded and frosted sugar-cake nightmares, trundle in comic magnificence through the crowds.”

Carnival organizations created a space for the resurgent white supremacists to reclaim the city’s streets while lampooning Republican leadership. The shared experience of Confederate service, Union occupation, and slave emancipation had united a slice of the white population. A German visitor to New Orleans in the 1870s remarked that Carnival royalty ruled “as absolute monarch of this and every other city of the South.” In the most infamous of its symbolic attacks, Comus named The Missing Links to Darwin’s Origin of Species as its parade theme in 1873. Its floats depicted Republican officials as pests, including President Grant as a tobacco grub and Louisiana’s Republican governor as a snake. Even when not so explicit, Carnival parades suggested racial hierarchy. In the 1931 novel Mardi Gras Masks, by Frances and Edward Tinker, readers encountered King Rex’s float, “a huge confection of papier mâché and tinsel drawn by four mules caparisoned in white with a large Carnival crown on the side, each one led by a negro shrouded in a white cloak and hood that (strange anomaly) made him look like a member of the Ku Klux Klan in full regalia.” As historian Elaine Parsons has argued, New Orleans’s Carnival pageantry strongly influenced the vigilante groups associated with Ku-Kluxism across the American South.7

The krewes and non-parading Carnival clubs annually crowned kings, queens, and other nobility to serve as a royal court within their respective organizations. Doing so heralded the supposedly pure bloodlines of the elite white population. The royal courts of each krewe also suggested that the upheaval caused by civil war and emancipation had not weakened what they declared the former master class. The white elite, aligned to the Democratic Party and the myth of the Lost Cause, affirmed their dominance.

The King Cake Rises

The clouds of flour that defined the chaotic antebellum Mardi Gras coalesced into a new postbellum tradition—the king cake. Formed in 1870, the Twelfth Night Revelers paraded to the French Opera House on January 6 to announce their selected royalty. While some organizations voted annually for their royal positions, circulating their posts among members, other groups left their decisions to chance. Women associated with the Revelers gathered onstage at the Opera House to eat a cake that resembled the galette des rois, and that contained a bean made of gold and several silver beans baked inside. The woman that discovered the gold bean in her slice of cake was made queen, and those who found the silver beans, her maids. Though the Revelers stopped parading after 1878, they continued to hold their Twelfth Night Cake ceremony, an event that has marked the official start of the Carnival-related social calendar in New Orleans since the late nineteenth century. In January 1871, however, the New Orleans Republican, a newspaper committed to aiding federal efforts of reconstruction in Louisiana, sneered at the new organization’s pretentions: “Restaurants and bakeries down town make a pretty showing of Twelfth Night, or King, cakes. It is intimated that the cake of the Twelfth Knight Devilers is all dough.”8

Not yet a uniquely New Orleans tradition, versions of the Twelfth Night Cake appeared across the nation at galas celebrating the close of the Christmas season on January 6. Americans blended ethnic traditions and invented numerous versions of the pastry. A New Yorker who hosted a Twelfth Night Party in 1875 offered a “cake . . . baked with a ring in it, which was to fall to the lot of some fortunate maiden and guarantee her marriage within the year.” Rings were common. A parishioner at a church in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1880 procured a “huge pound cake . . . being cut into twelve pieces, one of which contains a gold ring, the finder of which keeps the ring for twelve months, at the expiration he or she must furnish the cake for the next occasion.” But a cake with a bean was also a frequent feature. A newspaper in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1895 recounted “an old time game called Drawing King and Queen, which from time immemorial has been dedicated to Twelfth Night.” This involved preparing two plum cakes. A bean was hidden in the cake for girls; a pea in the pastry designated for boys. The French practice of baking a bean into a Twelfth Night Cake, the English custom of putting silver charms in Christmas puddings, and the Northern Irish tradition of placing charms such as a ring (marriage), button (poverty), coin (wealth), or other item in a Halloween cake for divination all likely made their way to the diverse port city of New Orleans.9

By the late nineteenth century, the custom of French Creole families hosting a series of Carnival-related parties featuring a galette des rois entered the broader social circuit of New Orleans. New Orleans bakers increasingly embedded a bean or, less frequently, a pecan into the king cake. Though occasionally baking a bean or nut into a Twelfth Night cake dated at least to medieval times and symbolized new life, recalling both the salvation brought by Jesus and the start of spring, the practice in postbellum New Orleans heralded a resurrected white southern society. The phrase “king cake” slowly eclipsed “Twelfth Night Cake” and French terms as elite New Orleanians of Anglo extraction organized their own parties throughout the Carnival season. The Daily Picayune first used the term on January 23, 1887, in relation to an “informal reception” of socialites: “At the cutting of the ‘king cake’ Mr. Crozat was made King by the bean’s falling to his lot. Mr. Crozat selected Miss Marguerite Oriol as his Queen.” Another example, from January 26, 1896, described the third in a series of receptions hosted by an organization called the Joyful Circle: “The evening was spent in dancing and other amusements and singing. The king cake cutting, which was one of the principal features, took place just before midnight and resulted in the selection of the following young ladies as queens.” By the turn of the century, these events became frequent enough to be named. The press called the affairs a “king party” or “‘king cake’ party.” On occasion, the recipient of the bean was expected to host the next king party. A “return” king cake party became more common in the early twentieth century, further justifying the king cake’s presence throughout the Carnival season. Not surprisingly, bakers began advertising their catering services for such gatherings.10

The phrase “king cake” slowly eclipsed “Twelfth Night Cake” and French terms as elite New Orleanians of Anglo extraction organized their own parties throughout the Carnival season.

By the 1910s, the king cake had evolved into a more prominent feature of everyday life in New Orleans. Faced with the closure of the Storyville red-light district, the onset of Prohibition, and the dramatic increase in automobile-oriented tourist travel, businessmen and politicians began vigorously promoting the city as a vacation spot while also fostering preservation efforts. The Great Depression subsequently strengthened this focus on tourism as industrial production and commerce plummeted. Enhancing the Carnival season became a priority. Travel writer John Martin Hammond already had noted in 1916 that New Orleans’s “greatest advertising factor, is, no doubt, the Mardi Gras.” Businessmen launched middle-class krewes to expand the parading calendar and enhance the popular appeal of Carnival. Krewes also enlivened parades by tossing revelers glass beads and wooden doubloons featuring Carnival themes. Such items encouraged onlookers, many of them visitors, to interact. Those lucky enough to catch a throw gained an instant souvenir. To satisfy tourists’ curiosity about Carnival traditions, newspapers carried the first king cake recipes, and bakeries cultivated a broadened market via advertising campaigns.11

Efforts to democratize Mardi Gras festivities for popular consumption transformed king cakes into a Carnival-long tradition for the masses. The cakes fostered public fascination with krewes and their respective royalty, allowing consumers to imagine themselves as Carnival nobility. Newspaper advertisements for king cakes also became more prevalent, running from the Epiphany through Mardi Gras Day. In 1916, for example, Frey’s Delicatessen on Canal Street, the city’s main shopping thoroughfare, hawked three sizes of king cakes that “sold so fast that freshness is a rule never broken.” Stores acknowledged that king cakes had reached beyond the socialite scene. In January 1917, Odenwald and Gros caterers declared, “A king cake will be a novelty at your table.” And by 1923, according to one baker, the king cake had moved beyond novelty to become a requirement: “You will need King’s Cake to make your party a success.” A follow-up ad published in late January asked, “HAVE YOU HAD YOUR KING PARTY?” Not that a party was necessary. As Holmes Department Store urged in 1931, “GET A KING CAKE FOR TEA TONIGHT . . . delicious for morning coffee, too.” By the interwar period, the king cake had taken on its modern oval form, mimicking a crown. The shape also allowed bakers to easily adjust the cake’s size, and proved convenient for partiers cutting slices. More often, folks bought king cakes from bakeries rather than baking them at home.12

“You will need King’s Cake to make your party a success.”

After the war, New Orleanians increasingly linked king cakes to the gluttonous celebration of Fat Tuesday rather than to the Epiphany, encouraged by the maturation of the tourism industry in an age of heightened consumerism. Popular author Oliver Evans noted as much in his history of the city from 1959. “But Mardi Gras comes in the spring, and the excitement of the day is inseparable from the excitement of the season,” Evans wrote. “It had a religious meaning once . . . but the religious meaning now is secondary to the social one: it is a day when people forget their debts, hide their everyday faces behind masks, and buy drinks for perfect strangers.” The “pleasure principle” ruled during parading season in these years. Over fifty masked balls, many open to the ticket-buying public, now occurred during Carnival. By the 1970s, dozens of krewes in New Orleans and neighboring parishes crowded the calendar during the weeks prior to Mardi Gras. The proliferation of affordable air travel and the development of the interstate highway system made these festivities more accessible to American tourists.13

More demand and a wider audience led bakeries to further transform the king cake into an eye-catching spectacle. In 1948, Binder’s Bakery described their version as “A delicious coffee cake of rich dough. Gaily decorated with candy and colored sugar.” The Carnival colors purple, green, and gold—which the Krewe of Rex promoted as symbols of justice, faith, and power, respectively—became standard features. And just as Carnival evolved into a celebration of electrified floats, masked revelers, and mass markets, the king cake became more colorful, more varied, and more profuse. By 1957, a local television show for children broadcasted a king cake party each Saturday during Carnival season.14

The King Cake Baby Comes of Age

Nothing symbolized the transformation of the king cake into a democratized consumer product of the modern age more than the incorporation of the plastic king cake baby. Instead of a bean or pecan, a tiny porcelain figure of a child was occasionally embedded by the early twentieth century. The doll was likely a Frozen Charlotte or Frozen Charlie, a toy popular from the 1850s until the 1920s, which took its name from a famous 1843 poem by Seba Smith, “A Corpse Going to a Ball.” First published in Maine in 1843, the poem describes a young girl so proud of her dress that she refuses to wear a coat and freezes to death on her sleigh ride to a New Year’s ball. Frozen Charlottes and Charlies were sometimes incorporated into children’s Christmas puddings during the Victorian era, both as a surprise gift and as a warning. Near the turn of the century, this tradition shifted to the king cake. A New Orleans girl recorded in her 1899 diary, “It being ‘King’s Day’ we ate some King’s Cake and my cousins and one of my aunts got the seeds, or as I had better say, the pecans and dolls as two had dolls.”

“It being ‘King’s Day’ we ate some King’s Cake and my cousins and one of my aunts got the seeds, or as I had better say, the pecans and dolls as two had dolls.”

The Daily Picayune first mentions a king cake baby in January 1908, reporting, “During the evening the king cake was cut and the doll fell to Miss A. Barrow.” That this occurred at a “‘return’ king cake party” suggests that New Orleanians were already familiar with the practice. Still, it appears the doll only appeared sporadically until the 1940s. By 1947, however, Picou’s Bakery advertised a king cake containing the “traditional doll.” A few cookbooks sold shortly after the Second World War in exclusive circles, such as among insurance officials in Blue Goose International or the Women’s Republican Club, still advocated making king cakes with a hidden “bean or small trophy” or even a “dime,” respectively.15

The modern king cake baby was a marketing ploy. In 1952, McKenzie’s, a local bakery chain, seized market share by advertising their mass-produced king cake containing a “China Doll.” Donald Entringer, the owner, recalled using china dolls since the late 1930s, when a cake ornament salesman offloaded a supply that he could not sell. Entringer’s aggressive advertising campaign during the early 1950s dramatically popularized the king cake baby across the city and in surrounding parishes. By the 1960s, he switched to cheaper plastic babies, with other bakeries and home cooks following his lead.16

The mass apparition of the doll had far more to do with gimmickry than with honoring the infant Jesus, as some New Orleanians believe. Krewes since the late 1960s increasingly turned to plastics to bolster the affordability and variety of throws. Glass beads crafted in war-ravaged Europe slowly gave way to plastic beads molded in China. Plastic cups, frisbees, and other trinkets proliferated by the 1980s.17

Bakeries in the 1960s offered a variety of king cakes as competition increased. They also made the cakes sweeter, reflecting an increased taste for sugar among Americans after the Second World War. In the mid-1960s, for instance, Judice’s Bakery described their king cakes as “rich coffee cake, decorated with candy, glazed fruit and colored sugar.” Rainbow Caterers offered king cakes that were “crown-like creations studded with citron ‘emeralds’ and cherry ‘rubies.’” Schwegmann’s, a local grocery chain, boasted, “We have the King Cake, a round or oval cake, made of sweetened bread dough, covered with colored sugar, and containing a small favor inside.” The dough was sweeter, too. David Haydel of Haydel’s Bakery noted that the “original King Cakes were made out of bread dough and were not too tasty.” But bakers increasingly opted for “sweet roll dough” during the 1960s, and sugar crystals of Carnival colors remained standard until the 1970s. Then, icing became a popular variant, further sweetening the cake. By the 1980s, some bakeries even stuffed their cakes with sugary fillings. One baker chuckled in 1985, “You wouldn’t believe the fillings people ask for: blueberry, blackberry, cream cheese, lemon, pumpkin. Anything you can put in a pie they want in a king cake.” Sam Scelfo, the current owner of Joe Gambino’s Bakery, estimates that king cakes from his line can incorporate “sixty or eighty different combinations of flavors.”18

A fresh wave of king cake recipes appeared in the 1970s, reflecting the pastry’s increased popularity. The recipes also showed the diversity of king cake styles. “Basic Dough Used for Hot Rolls or for Making Festive King Cake,” proclaimed a Times-Picayune article containing recipes in 1972. Recipes for “Daneel King Cake,” “Praline King Cake,” and “Carnival King Cake” also appeared during the decade.19

By the 1980s, the king cake was seemingly everywhere during Carnival season, even making its way to other parts of the United States. As David Haydel remarked in 1981, “Just recently—within the past few years—the demand has really gotten heavy. People are serving them at office parties, eating them for breakfast, having them for dessert.” In response to demand, Haydel’s Bakery introduced a king cake mix for grocery store shelves a couple years later. The pastry became so widespread that even schools in New Orleans served slices during their lunchtime meal service. Shopping malls hosted cuttings of what they deemed the “world’s largest king cake.” By the late 1980s, the local McKenzie’s chain sold 33,000 cakes a week during Carnival. Gambino’s Bakery sold nearly 9,000 king cakes a week; and Haydel’s Bakery sold almost 50,000 king cakes in the final week of Carnival alone. Such numbers were bolstered by the rise of express delivery companies since the 1970s. In 1989, FedEx, for the first time in its history, crafted a special box for shipping a specific product, partnering with Haydel’s to design a container for mailing a king cake. From roughly 2,000 king cakes in 1986, FedEx shipments of the pastry increased to over 31,000 in 1989. By 1990, after the United States Postal Service and other shippers copied the unique box, some 300,000 king cakes were mailed from New Orleans.20

In 1989, FedEx, for the first time in its history, crafted a special box for shipping a specific product, partnering with Haydel’s to design a container for mailing a king cake.

King cakes were also branded as home goods and souvenirs. In 1980, a home decorating store in New Orleans stocked a “gold satin King Cake pillow [that] looks good enough to eat.” A jewelry store several years later offered a necklace featuring a silver king cake baby on a purple, green, and gold silk cord. Such marketing has only increased during the twenty-first century. Today, another local jeweler crafts a variety of king cake baby pendants, some with the baby holding a trumpet, wine bottle, or cell phone. Consumers can even find king cake flavored vodka and coffee brands year-round.21

A shift in racial demographics within New Orleans from the 1960s onward contributed to the diversification of the king cake, particularly in regard to the now ubiquitous baby. The construction of Interstate 10, which passed above Claiborne Avenue, a historic African American business corridor, undermined the economic opportunities available to black residents and gutted nearby black neighborhoods. Over the next decades, African American community leaders urged fellow revelers “to come back to their roots in this city and celebrate Mardi Gras on Claiborne Avenue like we used to in the 1950s and 1960s.” Simultaneously, white city residents fled to suburbs in adjacent parishes, eroding New Orleans’s tax base.22

During the Jim Crow era, racial tension was rife at Carnival. White policemen and spectators could suddenly turn violent toward black paradegoers. One African American likened parades of the 1970s to an “obscene Confederate pageant.” This racial division influenced black Carnival groups. The Krewe of Zulu since 1909 has donned blackface and whiteface in a manner that mocked the regal pretentions of Rex and other whites-only krewes while lampooning racist stereotypes. The Plantation Revelers, a black club established in 1939, has continued to host plantation-themed dances during Carnival that satirize the idea of pure white bloodlines. Only in 1992 did the city council enact an ordinance banning parade permits to krewes that failed to desegregate. Proteus (until 2000), Comus, and Momus withdrew from the streets, leaving Rex as the only old-line krewe to comply with integration. As author Randall Kenan writes, “[N]ot only are relations between blacks and whites, generally speaking, regressive compared to places like Atlanta or Memphis or Charleston or Savannah, but also there still exist rigid color codes and color barriers between light-skinned and dark-skinned folk.”23

The proliferation of king cakes with tiny plastic “flesh-colored” pink babies within them, as a journalist in 1985 described the figures, occurred at a turning point in the city’s racial history—a moment when New Orleans transformed from a majority white city to a majority black city. A few bakeries responded by altering their king cake to appeal to the overlooked black population. The Winn-Dixie grocery store chain launched “‘Zulu Coconut’ king cakes” in 1985. The pastry referred to the Krewe of Zulu, famed for tossing decorated coconuts as a specialty throw during their parade. A spokesperson explained, “It’s practically the same as our regular king cake . . . We use a sweet dough mixed with cinnamon, use the same kind of icing, but instead of colored sugar, we put colored coconut (in purple, green and gold) on top the cakes. Also, instead of using a pink baby, we use a brown one.” Since the 1980s, chocolate king cakes have popularly been known as “Zulu” versions. This style of king cake remains a novelty. The name “Zulu” marks it as racialized for African Americans, who have not embraced this version of the king cake, as some black civil rights activists since the 1960s have questioned whether the continued use of blackface and coconuts within the Zulu parade perpetuates rather than ridicules racial stereotypes.24

After Hurricane Katrina, as residents reaffirmed their roots, bakers accentuated their ethnic heritages within their king cakes. Sean O’Mahoney, owner of Breads on Oak, crafted “adult king cakes” by injecting “something Irish in there.” His king cakes feature Irish whiskey and Baileys Irish Cream liqueur. Likewise, the proprietors of Nor Joe Importing Company honored their Italian heritage by offering a cannoli king cake. In recent years, the most popular king cake is baked by Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery, located within the Vietnamese community of New Orleans East since 1982. The closure of various Vietnamese bakeries after Hurricane Katrina led bakery president Linh Tran Garza’s mother to craft a king cake that appealed to Vietnamese residents. Garza explained that “the Vietnamese, we don’t tend to like very sweet pastries . . . in order to kind of balance out that sweetness, we said, ‘Why don’t we just use the cream cheese?’ . . . But, um, it’s not as sweet as your typical sugary icing.” Similarly, Jean-Luc Albin, owner of Maurice’s French Pastries, emphasized that his Ponchatoula strawberry king cakes are popular with Asian American customers during Mardi Gras and Chinese New Year as “they are light and not overly sweet.” The settlement and integration of thousands of Latin American immigrants after Katrina led to new bakeries that offer king cakes inspired by Latin American ingredients and traditions. Norma’s Sweet Bakery, for instance, markets a guava king cake, and Ideal Market sells both the New Orleans style king cake and the Mexican rosca de reyes.25

Though king cake babies largely remain a fleshy pink, bakeries since the 1990s have diversified the figurine. “The babies are indeed ubiquitous now, and come in a rainbow of colors, from somewhat realistic pink and brown, to green, purple and gold,” National Public Radio reported in 2012. Avoidance of racial connotations was often key to bakers’ decisions. In 2017, Chaya Conrad, proprietor of Bywater Bakery, explained her use of only golden babies, saying, “We went gold because I didn’t want it to be racial.” A few bakeries have even jettisoned the king cake baby. Today, Cochon Butcher markets a king cake featuring a small plastic pig. Since the 1990s, Haydel’s Bakery has offered a different New Orleans–related figurine every year, including a streetcar, a beignet waiter, and even jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain. Fear of lawsuits over broken teeth or worse have led some bakeries to exclude a figurine or to offer one outside the cake for customers to insert themselves.26

In post-Katrina New Orleans, the king cake has emerged as a vital tradition symbolic of Carnival and community. A few businesses, especially those linked to tourism like the Court of Two Sisters restaurant in the French Quarter, have hawked king cakes year-round since the 1980s. However, bakers who have pursued year-round sales admit facing flack from consumers. Arthur Hardy, a New Orleans native and popular historian of Mardi Gras, speaks for many locals who consider the consumption of king cake outside of the Carnival season “heresy.” Fellow native and bakery proprietor Dwynesha Lavigne agrees. Reserving the king cake strictly as a Carnival treat “keeps it sacred as opposed to just having it whenever you wanted it all the time.” New Orleanians have also resisted attempts to market small king cakes suitable for a single consumer. Lavigne, who operates a cupcake business seemingly ideal for such sales, refrains since “the larger king cake means you’re sharing it with your family and with your friends.” King cakes are not just about sales but also about fellowship. Some bakeries over the last decade have even popularized the galette des rois style, reaffirming a tradition at a time when traumatized locals feared for the restoration of the city.27

“[T]he entire city is gripped with king cake madness, its diet and culture dominated by the colorful cakes.”

The king cake reigns among today’s New Orleanians. Local anthropologist David Beriss, reporting on Carnival in 2016, noted that “the entire city is gripped with king cake madness, its diet and culture dominated by the colorful cakes.” All across the city, New Orleanians waited in lines at bakeries and gobbled slices in anticipation of finding the plastic baby. When the New Orleans Saints of the National Football League won the Super Bowl, bakers honored the achievement by wrapping the world’s largest king cake around the Superdome in September 2010, a feat certified by Guinness World Records. They celebrated the pastry at the King Cake Festival, held each January since 2014 to benefit a children’s hospital. “Sometimes, it seems like the entire repertoire of New Orleans cuisine is reduced to king cake and beer during Mardi Gras season,” Beriss quipped. The king cake, so easily personified through its baby, has captured the imagination in ways that gumbo, beignets, and other local culinary staples cannot. In a city that has embraced its customs and history with vigor in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the king cake has come to embody New Orleans culture: tradition, family, revelry, and devotion. And the king cake baby, like the bean of yore, heralds a rebirth—that of a resurrected New Orleans.28


This article appears in the Winter 2019 (vol. 24, no. 4).

Anthony J. Stanonis, a native New Orleanian, is currently a lecturer of American history at Queen’s University–Belfast. His research largely focuses on tourism and foodways in the American South. His books include Creating the Big Easy: New Orleans and the Emergence of Modern Tourism, 1918–1945 (2006) and Faith in Bikinis: Politics and Leisure in the Coastal South since the Civil War (2014), both published by the University of Georgia Press.
Rachel Wallace is completing her PhD in history at Queen’s University–Belfast. She is also currently an adjunct professor at Loyola University New Orleans and a research fellow at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans.

 

NOTES
  1. “The New Orleans Baby Cakes Are Born!,” MiLB.com, November 15, 2016, https://www.milb.com/new-orleans/news/the-new-orleans-baby-cakes-are-born/c-208916226.
  2. Mac Rebennack, Under a Hoodoo Moon: The Life of the Night Tripper (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994), 159.
  3. The French possessed Louisiana from 1718 until 1762 and briefly in 1803. Spain ruled from 1762 until 1803. For background on Epiphany celebrations and the king cake, see George Reinecke, “New Orleans Twelfth Night Cake,” Louisiana Folklore Miscellany (April 1965), 45–52; Marcia Gaudet, “The New Orleans King Cake in Southwest Louisiana,” Mardi Gras, Gumbo, and Zydeco: Readings in Louisiana Culture (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003), Marcia Gaudet and James McDonald, eds., 48–57. For background on colonial New Orleans, see Shannon Lee Dawdy, Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); Nathalie Dessens, From Saint-Domingue to New Orleans: Migration and Influences (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010); census figures from www.census.gov.
  4. Sir Charles Lyell, “A Geologist at the Mardi Gras,” The World from Jackson Square: A New Orleans Reader (New York: Farrar, Straus and Company, 1948), Etolia Basso, ed., 139–140; Oliver Evans, New Orleans (New York: MacMillan, 1959), 146; James Gill, Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997), 18–74, 91–98; Reid Mitchell, All on a Mardi Gras Day: Episodes in the History of New Orleans Carnival (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 18–27.
  5. For background on Civil War and Reconstruction era New Orleans, see James Hogue, Uncivil War: Five New Orleans Street Battles and the Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011); James Hollandsworth, An Absolute Massacre: The New Orleans Race Riot of July 30, 1866 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004); Justin Nystrom, New Orleans After the Civil War: Race, Politics, and a New Birth of Freedom (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).
  6. Mildred Cram, Old Seaport Towns of the South (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1917), 284–285; Eleanor Early, New Orleans Holiday (New York: Rinehart, 1947), 277.
  7. Ernst von Hesse-Wartegg, Travels on the Lower Mississippi, 1879–1880 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990), Frederic Trautmann, trans., 169; Frances Tinker and Edward Larocque Tinker, Mardi Gras Masks: The Nineties (New York: D. Appleton, 1931), 46. For insight on the racial politics of late nineteenth-century Mardi Gras and the celebration’s national influence, see Gill, Lords, 93–107; Mitchell, Mardi Gras Day, 65–81; Ralph Wickiser, Caroline Durieux, and John McCrady, Mardi Gras Day (New York: Henry Holt, 1948), 81–82; Elaine Parsons, “Midnight Rangers: Costume and Performance in the Reconstruction-Era Ku Klux Klan,” Journal of American History (December 2005), 819–827, 833–836; Anthony J. Stanonis, “Through a Purple (Green and Gold) Haze: New Orleans Mardi Gras in the American Imagination,” Southern Cultures (Summer 2008), 109–131.
  8. “Twelfth Night,” Daily Picayune (January 4, 1870); “Twelfth Night Revels,” Daily Picayune (January 7, 1870); “City Intelligence,” New Orleans Bee (January 7, 1870); Early, Holiday, 261–264; “Local Intelligence,” New Orleans Republican (January 5, 1871).
  9. “The Royal Cake at Windsor Castle,” Jeffersonian-Republican (Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania; March 16, 1848); “Old Christmas,” Memphis Daily Appeal (January 7, 1882); “Social World,” Chicago Daily Tribune (January 17, 1875); “Twelfth Night Celebration,” Daily Globe (St. Paul, Minnesota; January 7, 1880); “Twelfth Night Games,” Omaha Daily Bee (January 6, 1895); Marcia Gaudet, “Ribbon Pulls in Wedding Cakes: Tracing a New Orleans Tradition,” Folklore (April 2006): 91–92, Gaudet, “The New Orleans King Cake in Southwest Louisiana,” 49–52; Reinecke, “New Orleans Twelfth Night Cake,” 48–52; Thomas Hale, “The Kings’ Cake Custom in Mobile, Alabama,” Louisiana Folklore Miscellany (August 1968), 104.
  10. Leonard Huber, “Reflections on the Colorful Customs of Latter-Day New Orleans Creoles,” Louisiana History (Summer 1980): 229; “Society,” Daily Picayune (January 23, 1887); “Personal and General Notes,” Daily Picayune (January 26, 1896). The earliest reference to “king cake” in the city’s other major newspaper, the Item, appears in 1907: “St. Bernard News,” New Orleans Item (January 8, 1907); For examples of “king party,” see “Personal and General Notes,” Daily Picayune (January 24, 1897); “Personal and General Notes,” Daily Picayune (February 6, 1898); “Personal and General Notes,” Daily Picayune (February 2, 1902). For examples of “king cake party,” see “Personal and General Notes,” Daily Picayune (January 9, 1898); “Personal and General Notes,” Daily Picayune (January 19, 1902); “Personal,” Daily Picayune (December 30, 1900).
  11. John Martin Hammond, Winter Journeys in the South (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippencott, 1916), 118; “The Story of Twelfth Night Cake,” Times-Picayune (September 12, 1934); “Round Table Talk about Food,” Times-Picayune (January 9, 1937); Anthony J. Stanonis, Creating the Big Easy: New Orleans and the Emergence of Modern Tourism, 1918–1945 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006), 187–188; Kevin Fox Gotham, Authentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture, and Race in the Big Easy (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 90–92.
  12. Frey’s ad, Times-Picayune (January 6, 1916); Odenwald and Gros ad, Times-Picayune (January 7, 1917); Original Young’s Confectionary, Times-Picayune (January 3, 1923); Original Young’s Confectionary, Times-Picayune (January 24, 1923); Holmes ad, Times-Picayune (January 13, 1931); Holmes ad, Times-Picayune (January 6, 1939); Renee Peck, “King Cakes Reign over Carnival,” Times-Picayune (February 12, 1981).
  13. Oliver Evans, New Orleans (New York: MacMillan, 1959), 145; Eleanor Early, New Orleans Holiday (New York: Rinehart, 1947), 262; Mark Souther, New Orleans on Parade: Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 150–162; Gotham, Authentic, 171–195.
  14. Binder’s Bakery ad, Times-Picayune (January 9, 1948); Binder’s Bakery ad, Times-Picayune (January 6, 1954); “Aunt Jane’s Letter Club,” Times-Picayune (January 20, 1957).
  15. Gaudet, “The New Orleans King Cake in Southwest Louisiana,” 49–51, quote from 51; “Personal and General Notes,” Daily Picayune (January 19, 1908); “Personal and General Notes,” Daily Picayune (January 10, 1909); “Picou’s Makes King Cakes,” New Orleans Item (January 16, 1947); Louisiana Pond Auxiliary of Blue Goose International, Sauce for the Goose: A New Orleans Cookbook (1948), John and Bonnie Boyd Hospitality and Culinary Library, National Food and Beverage Foundation, New Orleans, Louisiana (hereafter cited as NFBF-NOLA); Women’s Republican Club of Louisiana, New Orleans Carnival Cookbook (Women’s Republican Publications, 1951), 31, NFBF-NOLA. For information on the Frozen Charlotte, see “Young Charlotte,” Maine Folklife Center, University of Maine, https://umaine.edu/folklife/what-we-do/programs-and-events/maine-song-and-story-sampler-map/places/wells-young-charlotte, accessed November 28, 2017; “Frozen Charlotte,” Museums Victoria, https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1617640, accessed November 28, 2017.
  16. McKenzie’s ad, Times-Picayune (January 4, 1952); “King Cake, A Tradition,” Times-Picayune (February 19, 1981); “King Cakes Popular in City, Says Entringer,” Times-Picayune (February 2, 1983); Christine Bordelon, “King Cakes,” Times-Picayune (February 19, 1984).
  17. “Nonsense Is Sense at Carnival Time,” Times-Picayune (February 18, 1968); “Welcome Sugar Bowl Visitors,” Times-Picayune (December 31, 1971).
  18. Renee Peck, “King Cakes Reign over Carnival,” Times-Picayune (February, 12 1981); Judice’s Bakery ad, Times-Picayune (February 4, 1966). On the increased consumption of sugar, see Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985), 193–203; Carolyn de la Peña, Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 177–199; “King Cake Parties, Carnival Lunch Boxes,” Times-Picayune (January 9, 1967); Schwegmann’s ad, Times-Picayune (January 3, 1968); Janet Wallfisch, “The King Cake,” Times-Picayune (January 6, 1980); Woolworth ad, Times-Picayune (January 6, 1978); Lisa Martin, “King Cakes Never Stop at Bakery,” Times-Picayune (April 28, 1985); Sam Scelfo interviewed by Rachel Wallace (October 23, 2017), King Cake Oral History Project, NFBF-NOLA.
  19. “Basic Dough Used for Hot Rolls or for Making Festive King Cake,” Times-Picayune (January 6, 1972). For other recipes, see “King Cake,” Times-Picayune (April 13, 1975); “King Cake,” Times-Picayune (April 6, 1980); “Danneel King Cake,” Times-Picayune (April 18, 1976); “Praline King Cake,” Times-Picayune (March 26, 1978); “Carnival King Cake,” Times-Picayune (March 26, 1978).
  20. Renee Peck, “King Cakes Reign over Carnival,” Times-Picayune (February 12, 1981); Martin Covert, “Specialty Items, Chinese Visitors, Books,” Times-Picayune (November 21, 1983); “Orleans Menus,” Times-Picayune (February 10, 1985); Oakwood Shopping Center ad, Times-Picayune (February 3, 1980); Pat Antenucci, “Kid Stuff,” Times-Picayune (February 14, 1982); Margaret Fuller, “New Orleans, Queen of King Cake Business,” Times-Picayune (February 3, 1978); Martin Covert, “King Cakes,” Times-Picayune (January 11, 1986); “The Cake That Would Be King,” Times-Picayune (January 27, 1987); Mary Fonseca, “Hail! Hail! King of Cake,” Americana (February 1990), 54–57; Janet Ryland, “From Custom to Coffee Cake: The Commodification of the Louisiana King Cake,” Folklife in Louisiana website, accessed July 11, 2018, http://www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/Articles_Essays/main_misc_king_cake.html.
  21. Laura Claverie, “Even ‘Mork’ Has a Mask from Charge d’Affairs,” Times-Picayune (April 13, 1980); M. J. Jewelry ad, Times-Picayune (January 24, 1988); Molly McNamara Jewelry Design, http://www.mollymcnamara.com/kingcakebabies.html, accessed November 28, 2017; King Cake Lucky Player Vodka, http://luckyplayervodka.co.uk/product/king-cake, accessed November 28, 2017; French Market Coffee King Cake, https://www.reilyproducts.com/French-Market-King-Cake-12-Oz-Bag, accessed June 25, 2018; Community Coffee Mardi Gras King Cake, https://www.communitycoffee.com/products/coffee/12-oz-ground-mardi-gras-king-cake, accessed June 25, 2018.
  22. Ben Young, “Mardi Gras Celebration on No. Claiborne Ave.,” Louisiana Weekly (February 16, 1980).
  23. Ishmael Reed, Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (Garden City: Doubleday, 1978), 32.
  24. “Plantation Revelers,” Louisiana Weekly (January 19, 1980); Randall Kenan, Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 505; Lynne Jensen, “Stork Doesn’t Bring These Babies,” Times-Picayune (January 27, 1985); Fox, Authentic, 182–187; Gill, Lords of Misrule, 194–195; 221–278; Souther, Parade, 135–142, 171–187; Martin Covert, “King Cakes,” Times-Picayune (January 28, 1985); Ryland, “From Custom to Coffee Cake”; “Zulu King Cake,” Ambrosia Bakery website, accessed July 11, 2018, https://www.ambrosiabakery.com/products/515c7341-e9e9-4a21-94b0-4fee8afc9e21.
  25. Sean O’Mahoney interviewed by Rachel Wallace (December 15, 2017), King Cake Oral History Project, NFBF-NOLA; Ann Benoit, “Old Metairie Celebrates New Orleans’ Signature Sandwich with New Festival,” Times-Picayune (September 22, 2017); Linh Tran Garza interviewed by Rachel Wallace (December 11, 2017), King Cake Oral History Project, NFBF-NOLA; Jean Luc Albin interviewed by Rachel Wallace (December 7, 2017), King Cake Oral History Project, NFBF-NOLA; James Chaney, “A Glance at New Orleans’ Contemporary Hispanic and Latino Communities,” American Association of Geographers, accessed October 2, 2017, http://news.aag.org/2017/10/a-glance-at-new-orleans-contemporary-hispanic-and-latino-communities/.
  26. Eliza Barclay, “Is That a Plastic Baby Jesus in My Cake?,” National Public Radio website (February 17, 2012), accessed September 9, 2017. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/02/17/147039138/is-that-a-plastic-baby-jesus-in-my-cake; Chaya Conrad interviewed by Rachel Wallace (October 11, 2017), King Cake Oral History Project, NFBF-NOLA.
  27. Christine Bordelon, “Daily Jazz Brunch,” Times-Picayune (February 1, 1987); Chaya Conrad interviewed by Rachel Wallace (October 11, 2017), King Cake Oral History Project, NFBF-NOLA; Arthur Hardy interviewed by Rachel Wallace (October 26, 2017), King Cake Oral History Project, NFBF-NOLA; Dwynesha Lavigne interviewed by Rachel Wallace (October 10, 2017), King Cake Oral History Project, NFBF-NOLA.
  28. David Beriss, “New Orleans: A City in the Grip of King Cake Madness,” National Public Radio (February 2, 2016; accessed September 1, 2017), http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/02/02/464764078/new-orleans-a-city-in-the-grip-of-king-cake-madness; King Cake Festival website, accessed June 25, 2018, http://kingcakefestival.org/; “Largest King Cake,” Guinness World Records website, accessed June 25, 2018, http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/largest-king-cake-rosca-de-reyes.

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