By Kimber Fountain
Ah, Mardi Gras, that time of year when we prepare for the sanctimonious throngs of religious piety by indulging in excess and debauchery for two straight weeks. And with the opportunity for such outrageous revelry, it is only appropriate that dessert is figured into the hedonistic equation. Never fear, the King is here, and he brings with him not only a level of decadence fit for royalty, but also insight as to how Mardi Gras emerged as the ultimate holiday paradox.
To fully understand the relevance of Mardi Gras, we must look beyond the popular (and very recent) establishment of the Christmas season schedule, which starts in November and abruptly ends on December 26th as a result of stores no longer being able to use it as a marketing tool. But the Twelve Days of Christmas actually begin on Christmas Day, and January 6th is known as the Twelfth Night, or Epiphany, which symbolizes the day that the three Magi (a word interpreted by some to mean “king”) arrived at the birthplace of Jesus. The King Cake’s modern symbolism is directly tied to that of the Epiphany, shaped like a crown, with the baby inside representing the baby Jesus. It just so happens that Epiphany is also the first day of Mardi Gras, or the Carnival as it was originally called, a time of celebration before Lent. Thus the King Cake also became known as a symbol of Mardi Gras, and therefore went on to be included at every party for the duration of the Carnival season, most likely so they would have an excuse to eat cake every day.
Despite this seemingly Christian origin, the King Cake’s history goes back much further to the wild pagan celebration of Saturnalia which took place on one day during Winter Solstice, the predecessor of Christmas as the primary festival of the winter season. Cakes were baked to celebrate the harvest, and “king of the day” was chosen by using a bean concealed in them. In the Middle Ages with the spread of Christianity and the advent of Christmas, the cake ceremony was adopted for the celebration of Epiphany, right along with the raucous partying also associated with Saturnalia. Hence the religious-pagan holiday hybrid emerged and evolved, and although initially frowned upon by the church, they relented and merely went on to make attempts to distance the celebrations from their pagan roots, like replacing the bean with a baby Jesus.
The King Cake made its official debut in Western culture around 1870, and then in 1872 the Krewe of Rex established the official, symbolic colors of Mardi Gras: green for faith, purple for justice, and gold for power, and they were subsequently included in the cake’s decoration. Since Mardi Gras parties were originally held every day, the person who found the baby in the cake was expected to either bring the cake to the next party or host it. In the 20th century the baby returned to its symbolic roots, and much like the bean it is now used to ‘crown’ the kings and queen of parties, festivals, and Krewes. Today for safety purposes, most bakeries include the baby to the side and allow the customer to place it themselves.
Galveston has celebrated Mardi Gras since 1867 and festivities reached an outrageous height during the roaring twenties. The public celebrations began to die out in the 1940s, but privately people continued the parties and traditions. Then in 1985 it was revived full-force by the late and great George Mitchell, and it has grown to include over ten Krewes, countless parades, and of course the opportunity for the best of local bakeries to showcase their talents by way of the King Cake.
Originally, king cakes were just a simple ring of rich, Danish dough which is braided with cinnamon sugar, baked, frosted and then topped with sugary sprinkles and decorations. But some local Island bakeries have joined the creative evolution of the King Cake and offer their own unique varieties.
Pattycakes Bakery also makes their King Cakes in-house, with two sizes, Regular and Large, in either Cinnamon Sugar (traditional version), Raspberry, or Cinnamon Sugar Pecan.
Maceo’s Spice & Import Company will also offer King Cakes for purchase, by way of their related family operation, the outrageously popular and insanely delicious Rao’s bakery of Beaumont.
No matter which one you choose, this specialty item is in high demand, so be sure to order your King Cake at least 24 hours in advance.
(409)770-0500, 1528 Avenue L., www.shykatz.com
(409)762-2537, 704 14th Street, www.pattycakesgalveston.com
Maceo Spice & Import Company
(409)763-3331, 2706 Market St., www.maceospice.com