From the bloody bean to a plastic baby: The King Cake tradition
|Who got da baby?|
King Cakes, traditionally served only between Twelfth Night (January 6) and Mardi Gras day (the "fat tuesday" before Ash Wednesday) date back to the pre-Christian religions of Central Europe. From GumboPages.com:
It was customary to choose a man to be the "sacred king" of the tribe for a year. That man would be treated like a king for the year, then he would be sacrificed, and his blood returned to the soil to ensure that the harvest would be successful. The method of choosing who would have the honor of being the sacred king was the King's Cake. A coin or bean would be placed in the cake before baking, and whoever got the slice that had the coin was the chosen one.
Bloody awesome, right? Like many pagan traditions, Christian leaders realized they could not root out such practices, choosing instead to co-opt them with new, Jesus-approved meanings. GumboPages again provides enlightenment: "Catholic priests were not predisposed to human sacrifice, so the King's Cake was converted into a celebration of the Magi, the three Kings who came to visit the Christ Child."
The first French settlers to the New Orleans brought the tradition of the King Cake with them, consuming the pastry during Carnival — indulging in the sugar and fat that would be verboten during the austere Lenten season. Since then, King Cakes have become a common sight in Louisiana offices and classrooms every Friday during Carnival. Since the 1950s, a small plastic baby has become the most common trinket baked into the cake, rather than the original bean or coin. Whoever finds the baby in their slice of cake brings the cake for next week — not nearly as onerous as being the blood sacrifice for next year's successful harvest.
The modern King Cake is a coffee-cake type dough, sometimes filled or iced, rolled out into a long rope, shaped into an oval, and then twisted into a ring. The purple, green and gold colors of Carnival are applied to the cake in colored sprinkles or sugar.
GumboPages provides a link to Emeril Lagasse's King Cake recipe, as well as stern warning that you MAY NOT eat King Cake before January 6 or after Mardi Gras day. If you've got a craving for a piece of pastry that could have a tiny plastic baby in it, better get baking ... all of the ghosts of pagan sacrificed kings come to rattle their chains at those who flout the sacred rules of Carnival.