Celebrating Mardi Gras with a traditional king cake
Taking a riverboat cruise on the mighty Mississippi River near Mardi Gras time often means enjoying a special Mardi Gras tradition – king cake. But if a cruise is not in your future for February, celebrate at home with a scrumptious celebratory treat.
This year’s celebration falls on Tuesday, Feb. 21, but the celebration begins before that so laissez bon temps rouler – let the good times roll!
How did the Paris version of Mardi Gras come to North America? Celebrated in France since the Middle Ages, the story goes that French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’lberville and his men came down the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1699 and camped on the river bank.
Knowing that Mardi Gras on March 3 was being celebrated in France, their christened their campsite “Pointe du Mardi Gras” and the waterway “Bayou Mardi Gras.”
The word “Mardi Gras” is French for Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday and is the day for parades, masking and parties. It was created as a period of merriment and celebration to allow Christians to fatten up before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.
In 1857, the first carnival organization was formed and named the Mystic Krewe of Comus. A group of men got together and formed a secret carnival society to entertain friends and please the people of New Orleans with a parade.
The word “krewe” was first used by Comus who wanted to give the club’s name an Old English flavor. “Throws” are trinkets tossed from floats in the parade by costumed and masked krewe members since 1871. A few of the items are plastic necklaces, plastic cups, doubloons and candy.
“Throw me something, mister” is heard along the parade route as spectators entreat float riders to throw them what they have.
Mardi Gras has a moveable date and may occur on any Tuesday from February 3 through March 9 and ends on the day before Ash Wednesday. It always falls 46 days before Easter.
As for that king cake, the American tradition of celebrating the feast of the three Magi with a special cake is rooted in several European cultures. The name “king cake” comes from the Biblical story of the three kings who brought gifts to the Baby Jesus. As far back as the first half of the 16th century, France commemorated Kings’ Day.
The ring-shaped blend of coffee cake and cinnamon roll is often packed with fruit fillings and tasty cream cheeses, covered in icing, then topped with gold, green and purple sugar sprinkles. The colors came to stand for Mardi Gras and took on symbolic meanings – purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power.
A tiny plastic baby is often hidden inside the cake. Some say the tiny token represents the Baby Jesus. Others believe it comes from another tradition of hiding a bean or trinket in one slice of cake during the king’s ball. Whoever found the trinket would be crowned the king or queen of the ball.
A popular custom says that whoever finds the baby is responsible for buying the next king cake to share. Tradition also says the baby brings good luck and prosperity to the finder.
I have never found the baby in my many slices of king cake over the years but I do have a king cake sitting on my kitchen counter right now. The cake came from Rao’s Bakery in Beaumont, Texas, where Mardi Gras will be celebrated with an Aurora Grand Ball on Feb. 11, and Carnival Nights and Midway Lights from Feb. 16 to 19.
If king cakes are not available in your area, you can order a cake to be shipped overnight from several bakeries, usually along with some green, gold and purple plastic beads and a tiny baby.
You can insert the baby in the king cake before serving or, as my family does, just give the baby a place of honor atop the cake. With little grandchildren ready to enjoy the cake, I never wanted to take a chance that a little one will accidentally bite down on the plastic baby.
This way, we also feel as though we are all being blessed with good luck and prosperity. Or at least a delicious piece of king cake.
Photos by Logan Peters and Jackie Sheckler Finch
- A king cake from Rao’s Bakery in Beaumont, Texas. (Cover photo)
- The baby inside the cake is supposed to bring good luck and prosperity to the finder.
- Even family pets celebrate Mardi Gras.
- Masks are a fun part of Mardi Gras.
- Mardi Gras is a time to celebrate and party.
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