The King Cake Tradition
The Louisiana King Cake and the legacy it leaves
This past Sunday I went to a French King Cake celebration with some friends. At the celebration we shared both a French King Cake and a Louisiana King Cake in accordance with tradition. After eating both cakes, I thought that it’d be a good idea to share what I learned about the differences between the two practices and give a little history on the Louisiana king cake.
Not every Louisianan knows the true significance of the King Cake. Asking a local Cajun, I received a joking response, “Well, it means a lot of calories, gaining about 10 pounds, a lot of sweet goodness…” True, true, and true. Jokes aside though, there is true meaning behind the Louisiana King Cake; one full of symbolism.
In Louisiana tradition, the Mardi Gras king cake begins on the Epiphany. It is traditional to have one king cake party a week until the fasting period of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. These parties usually take place on Sundays; however, locals vary in the practices to an extent. Many elementary schools, office buildings, and others will bring king cakes throughout the work week just to share. Per Louisiana tradition, a small plastic baby, representative of the baby Jesus (seen in the first picture), will be randomly placed by the host into the cake. The person who receives the piece of cake with the plastic baby in it, will be in charge of providing the next cake the following week.
The symbolism of the king cake begins with its very construction. It continues on through the color of the sugar, and concludes with the time of year of which king cakes are to be eaten.
The colors of the king cake
There is a double or even triple meaning for the colors of the king cake. The colors of the Louisiana king cake are purple, gold, and green. These are also the colors of Mardi Gras. A meaning for the colors has been associated to both virtue and religious symbolism. For example, the purple can represent justice, but it can also represent myrrh. The color green is representative of faith, and frankincense. Lastly, gold represents both power and the material worth of gold brought by one of the three magi, or wise men. The number of colors is also representative. There are three colors, three wise men, and the Holy Trinity also equates to three. For more reading, you may enjoy my article on Mardi Gras, which gives a more in-depth answer to the colors of Mardi Gras.
Braiding of the pieces of king cake
Most king cakes in Louisiana will be designed with three pieces of bread intertwined with one another. This ultimately results in a ‘braiding’ of the three breads together. By most accounts, the braiding of the king cake is in many ways representative of the three theme again. Typically, three pieces of dough are braided together to form a king cake. These three are more closely related to the three colors, three wise men, and Trinity.
The taste of king cake can vary to a degree. This is mainly because there are many bakeries and family recipes for the cake. King cake’s core ingredients are dough and sugar. They will usually include a bit of cinnamon as well. From that base of the recipe, people use a variety of ingredients to add to the king cake. For example, some fill king cakes with cream cheese, Bavarian cream or strawberry filling; no two bakeries make the same king cake. Each one can taste vastly different from one another, taking into respect its core ingredients are consistent in each recipe.
A comparison with the French King Cake
The French have a similar tradition of cake sharing. They share a king cake on the Epiphany to honor the birth of Jesus. They use a cake which is typically a pastry like cake with some almond filling (although there are different types). The price of these cakes can vary significantly. Costs for a French king cake can range from 12-50€. Most supermarkets will sell smaller cakes in the price range of 12-15€. Pictured below is one of these cakes. As you can tell, it is quite different in appearance than the Louisiana king cake.
The tradition in France is similar in that a cake is used. In accordance with this tradition, a broad bean, or fève, was used to signify the winner. There are some now who use other things such as lucky charms or plastic figures. The meaning and practice of these objects in comparison to a plastic baby are slightly different. For example, the person who gets the charm or bean gets a crown, which is different than how Louisianans practice the celebration. In Louisiana, the person who receives the plastic baby is responsible for the next cake. Furthermore, the person who receives the crown should choose his or her queen or king and kiss them on the cheek.
Also, the cake is held under a table and someone decides the order and hands out slices accordingly so the process will be as randomized as possible. The practice usually takes place on the first Sunday of January, and is typically a one time event (annually). On occasion, it is not uncommon for school children to celebrate this event again with their classmates at school the following week.
What are your thoughts?
Have you ever tried a king cake from Louisiana or France? If so, which is your favorite?
Hey there amigo! Did you enjoy my article? If you did and think that others will too, please take a moment to share and connect with me on social media. I’d appreciate it!