i can now, from experience, say the following: you know mardi gras season is upon you when the king cakes start popping up. king cake is the quintessential mardi gras food item. it will be at every new orleans party you attend from new year’s day until ash wednesday. when i first heard of it, before i came here, i was excited about it. a kind of cake i’ve never had? woohoo! then i got here and discovered it’s just a glorified cinnamon roll…and not the delicious, dripping-with-butter kind either. more like if you took several cans of pillsbury cinnamon roll dough and twisted them into a big ring. pour white glaze and colored sugar on top, and—voilà—king cake.
there are two things you can put inside a king cake, though, that make it special. one is the baby. there has to be a baby. native new orleanians will grumble your ears off about the fact that the bakeries don’t put the baby in anymore, instead placing it on the side for the purchaser to insert. the reason? liability. someone somewhere must have choked on a plastic baby and the bakery got sued and that was the end of that. i always look sheepish when the natives get restless over this issue…
“who doesn’t know there’s a baby in a king cake?” they exclaim.
me and everyone else that’s not from here, that’s who! is what i’m thinking in response. any idea what the word “mardi” means, jerky? no? i didn’t think so. now thank you for performing the heimlich on me. good day to you.
i suppose at some point the plastic baby represented the baby jesus, but what it represents now is who has to buy the next in the seemingly unending procession of mardi gras king cakes. a fellow americorps member of mine was hoping to get the baby when her job site had a king cake. she did get it and was laughed at hysterically when the others found out that she thought buying the cake “next time” meant next year.
“next year? hahaha! try tomorrow!”
dumb non-natives strike again.
the other thing that can be put into a king cake to make it a treat is filling. i didn’t mess with any of those fruit ones, but i did have the cream cheese filling, and believe you me—it makes a world of difference. it takes that ol’ oversized breakfast bun and turns it into something worth the caloric intake. you gotta spring for it, though; the difference between a filled king cake and an unfilled one is a good four dollars. i sprang for cream cheese for the mardi gras party at my house, and of the three (count ‘em, three) king cakes that turned up that night, mine was the only non-plain one and the only one that got finished. i may be a dumb non-native, but hey—at least i’m not cheap.