A few weeks ago, I ate three pieces of cake on a single day. All in the name of research, of course.
You see, it was Jan. 6, otherwise known as Epiphany or Kings Day — and in New Orleans, that signals the start of Carnival season. And that means we eat king cake.
Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is, of course, a single day: Feb. 9 this year. But in New Orleans, Carnival is a season that starts with Kings Day and ends in ashes — on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 10). In between, the entire city is gripped with king cake madness, its diet and culture dominated by the colorful cakes.
King cakes are most prominently featured in a kind of ritual exchange tradition in workplaces. One person brings a cake to the office to start off the cycle.
The cakes are supposed to come with a plastic figure hidden in them (usually a plastic baby, but sometimes it's a bean or some other figure). The person who finds the hidden figurine in a slice must bring the next cake to the office. This exchange goes on until Mardi Gras, after which the cakes disappear for another year.
New Orleans' king cake tradition is clearly related to practices in France, Spain, Italy and other countries. Long before I lived here, I was introduced to the French galette des rois.
The French version I am most familiar with is a puff pastry filled with almond cream that has a little figurine hidden inside. It's most often consumed on Epiphany, although bakeries make them available for a few weeks before and after. The person (usually a child) who ends up with the figurine also gets a paper crown. There are several varieties of king cake found in different parts of Europe, as well as in Central and South America. Like other globalized foods and traditions, each place makes the practice its own.
New Orleans' king cakes are usually made with a Danish or brioche pastry, unlike the French ones, and are, at a minimum, decorated with purple, green and gold sugar, the colors of Mardi Gras. People bring them just about everywhere: The number and variety of cakes on display at even small gatherings appear to increase geometrically as we approach Mardi Gras itself.
Sometimes, it seems like the entire repertoire of New Orleans cuisine is reduced to king cake and beer during Mardi Gras season — especially for any event involving float decorating, costume-making and parade preparation. (For many, Popeye's fried chicken adds much-needed variety to the typical Carnival diet.)
And, of course, king cake and beer is probably the breakfast combo of choice for many on Mardi Gras day (one may replace the beer with a Bloody Mary). King cake consumption really comes to stand for the entire Carnival season, as this advertisement from one local bakery (which I am not endorsing, but it does make very pretty cakes) illustrates with an impressive array of iconic Mardi Gras types.
When I moved to New Orleans, the first king cakes I ate came from McKenzie's, a now defunct chain of local bakeries. Natives of New Orleans of a certain age can be deeply emotional about the loss of McKenzie's, which they see as a sign of the passing of those things that made the city unique. The store's king cake, which I remember as a dry brioche with a modest amount of sugaring in Mardi Gras colors, was relatively austere. (My wife, who remembers these cakes fondly, tells me I am being too harsh.) King cakes in this style can still be found around town, and many of my native friends and colleagues claim to prefer them to the over-the-top, garish cakes that have come to dominate the market in recent years.
Despite such protests, king cakes filled with everything from cream cheese to bananas and peanut butter are ubiquitous — and very popular. The amount of decorative sugar involved is rivaled only by the amount of glitter people in New Orleans use each year on their costumes. These cakes are a long way from the French galette des rois. And they make people very happy.
Around here, people are obsessive about the king cake tradition. There are annual evaluations of the best king cakes by our leading food writers. There are stories about the evolution of the cakes, about the entry of different ethnic groups into the tradition, about the ways in which innovative pastry chefs create cakes that are ever more dazzling. There are strange variations on the king cake theme, including king cake vodka (I really don't think this is a good idea) and the king cake smoothie. There is, of course, a king cake festival and competition, held this past weekend.
If you prefer your cakes a little less ostentatious, you can get French-style galette des rois around town, too. You can now order king cakes to be delivered by Uber, and if you don't live here, bakeries will be happy to FedEx one to you. There is even king cake satire, including a series of advertisements from the fake Ragusa Brothers Bakery, done in perfect working-class New Orleans "Yat" accents, that skewer king cakes and a whole lot more.
The madness will last one more week. Until next year, that is.
David Beriss is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of New Orleans. A version of this story first appeared on FoodAnthro.com.