Monday was Twelfth Night, or Day of the Epiphany, when the Christian tradition informs us that the three wise men finally made it to Mary and Joseph's place and a baby shower for the holy infant with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This season a cartoon meme circulated depicting a so-called Fourth Wiseman who was preemptively turned away by a travel agent angel; he showed up bearing fruit cake as his gift. Perhaps he would have fared better with an ovate, spice-laden Mardi Gras king cake instead.
Twelfth Night marks the official end of the Yuletide and the beginning of carnival season running until Lent. At south Louisiana Walmarts, it's also the day Christmas final markdowns are pushed aside and Mardi Gras masks, beads, and all manner of party and parade-going paraphernalia are squeezed in near the Valentine candy.
In most parts of the country, we drop into the easy chair and plop the figurative Alka-Seltzer tablets into the toothbrush glass with "oh, what a relief" as Christmas and New Year's busyness ends. Not so around New Orleans. The red and green tinsel comes down and the carnival colors of green, purple and gold are strung. And the king cakes show up in stacks at bakeries, supermarkets and even gas stations along Interstate 10.
I was recently in Louisiana to see my alma mater, Baylor University, play Georgia in the Sugar Bowl at the Superdome. The Bears lost, but no tears. The season was a winner. Leaving the hometown on the city outskirts, I made the usual stop at Winn-Dixie to stock up on Louisiana ex-patriate supplies: Blue Plate Mayonnaise, Community Dark Roast Coffee, Leidenheimer's French bread-- it was the Germans, not Frenchmen, who perfected those crusty signature po-boy loaves-- and Chee-Wees. The latter is a regional snack similar to Cheetos but much tastier because, well, they're baked in New Orleans. And at this time of year: king cakes.
I opt for the classic cinnamon versions with no filling. For one, the classic travels better with no cream or jam inside. And for the other, a king cake is already something of a Sara Lee coffee ring dressed in drag slathered generously with white icing, carnival-colored sugar, float-throw plastic beads, and of course, the tiny pink, naked baby doll. No need for an nth degree of moist filling sweetness.
As most know, the king cake baby is hidden inside and whoever gets the prize piece is either designated king or queen (if at a carnival krewe fete) or, among commoners, the chosen one provides the cake for the next party or office break room get-together. The European king cake tradition dates back 300 years or so and was readily adapted in Creole Louisiana. The tiny doll was initially meant to represent Baby Jesus while sometimes beans were used instead of the baby. The Twelfth Night Revelers, New Orleans' second oldest carnival organization, stages the first ball of the season each Jan. 6. The queen is chosen among the prospective debutantes when she bites into a golden bean in her piece. Runners-up settle for silver.
Growing up in Louisiana one inures to such odd customs. Outsiders have difficulty understanding the entire season known as Carnival versus that one day, Mardi Gras, which culminates it all. The masked krewes that stage balls and roll parades can be enigmatic. But for the most part, they're simply old money, old boy networks similar to organizations in Northeast port cities. But city fathers up north don't dress up in white tights, powdered wigs and gold dancing shoes.
This got me to thinking. We've been through the excruciating ordeal of the Democrats trying to figure out who among the hordes to run in 2020 against King, er, President Trump. There continues more self-foot-shooting with intra-party squabbling than focusing on the incumbent monarch's chinked armor.
A better process would be a king cake party. No matter the crowd around the dining room table, each hopeful gets a piece. The cake could be decorated in red, white and blue. Of course the poly-vinyl-chloride baby eschewed for a politically correct, organic, all-inclusive speckled butter bean. Whoever gets the bean runs. Simple, neat and a gateway to spending political and financial capital on the party's opponent, not in-family tiffs.
You laugh? Important leaders have been chosen as strangely over the ages. If not by royal birthright, by abdications and shame-ridden resignations.
After all, a puff of smoke indicates the choice of the new Holy Father. N'est-ce pas?
Commentary on 01/09/2020
Print Headline: King cake's new purpose