+
Culture

You know, they didn't always put a plastic baby in a king cake. Here's why they did.

mardis gras, kings cake, king cake, king cake baby
File:King Cake Baby.jpg - Wikipedia

In my humble opinion, the Mardis Gras king cake is by far the coolest holiday dessert. It’s got a little bit of everything: a fun design, bold colors, a rich history (more on that later).

Made with yeasty cinnamon flavored dough—and heaps of symbolism—this regal pastry-cake hybrid is usually oval shaped to resemble a crown, along with tri-colored icing in gold, purple and green to represent power, justice and faith.

And let’s not forget the piece de resistance: that miniature plastic baby, destined to be found by one lucky individual. Lucky in the sense that finding it means they now have the honor of providing the cake for next year.

However, there wasn’t always a baby hiding in the dough. Like most traditions, this one has evolved and adapted over time. And, of course, it began with pagans.


Many historians believe that the king cake has much older origins, beginning with the Roman winter festival Saturnalia.

File:Saturnalia by Antoine Callet.jpg - Wikimedia Commonscommons.wikimedia.org

During this winter solstice celebration, Saturn—the Roman god of agriculture—would be honored by using the gains of the season’s harvest to make ceremonial cakes. And instead of a miniature baby, one singular fava bean would be placed inside. And whosoever should find the bean would be named “king of the day.”

Which is a bit odd, considering in ancient tradition fava beans were regarded as omens of death. But other sources note that favas were considered magic and even used for voting. Certainly makes that infamous Hannibal line take on a whole new context.

In addition to baking, the festival would involve a raucous good time of booze, dancing, gambling and other, ahem, adult group activities.

Fast forward to the rise of Christianity, the ritual adopted a more religious context in France.

File:Edward Burne-Jones - The Adoration of the Magi - Google Art ...commons.wikimedia.org

In Roman Catholic tradition, the Epiphany denotes the day when the three kings first saw the baby Jesus. The king cake came to represent this day, even taking on the name of Epiphany cake.

So it stands to reason that if this sweet treat became associated with the celebration of baby Jesus, then of course the plastic baby was originally intended for such representation, right?

Wrong.

The baby wouldn’t make its appearance until the mid-1900s, and it was thanks to a clever salesman in New Orleans.

File:Mobile Mardi Gras Carnival, 1900.jpg - Wikimedia Commonscommons.wikimedia.org

By then, the king cake had already been a prominent Mardi Gras item.

The owner of one of the 20th century’s most famous bakeries, Donald Entringer of McKenzie’s, was approached by a salesman carrying a surplus of tiny porcelain dolls from France, according to food expert Poppy Tooker in an interview with NPR.

"He had a big overrun on them, and so he said to Entringer, 'How about using these in a king cake,’” Tooker told NPR.

Though a simple case of supply-and-demand isn’t terribly exciting, the way this simple concept has advanced to become the dish’s golden standard is pretty remarkable.

Plus, the fact that this Louisiana tradition is steeped in history of bawdy hedonism and sacred spiritualism, all with a healthy dose of capitalizing on the combo … I mean if that’s not New Orleans in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.

It’s not just beans and babies either.

Pecans, jeweled rings, gold coins and small charms have also been used. Some bakeries have even made their own customized trinkets. Others have started avoiding placing them inside altogether, attempting to thwart potential lawsuits. Baking with plastic is a tad more frowned upon these days.

Though most of us are familiar with the NOLA style of the king cake, other countries have their own versions.

There’s the French galette des rois, which is less colorful but oh-so-flaky, topped with a golden paper crown.

Also there’s Spanish rosca de reyes, flavored with lots of orange and topped with dried fruit.

There’s even a Greek version, vasilopita, that’s very similar to coffee cake. Not that you couldn’t have any of these cakes for breakfast, but there’s an excuse baked right into this one.

No matter what style you try, or whether or not you find that plastic baby, the king cake—along with its festive history and captivating lore—is definitely worth celebrating.

All illustrations are provided by Soosh and used with permission.

I have plenty of space.

This article originally appeared on 04.09.16


It's hard to truly describe the amazing bond between dads and their daughters.

Being a dad is an amazing job no matter the gender of the tiny humans we're raising. But there's something unique about the bond between fathers and daughters.

Most dads know what it's like to struggle with braiding hair, but we also know that bonding time provides immense value to our daughters. In fact, studies have shown that women with actively involved fathers are more confident and more successful in school and business.

Keep ReadingShow less
Identity

This blind chef wore a body cam to show how she prepares dazzling dishes.

How do blind people cook? This "Masterchef" winner leans into her senses.

Image pulled from YouTube video.

Christine Ha competes on "Masterchef."

This article originally appeared on 05.26.17


There is one question chef Christine Ha fields more than any other.

But it's got nothing to do with being a "Masterchef" champion, New York Times bestselling author, and acclaimed TV host and cooking instructor.

The question: "How do you cook while blind?"

Keep ReadingShow less

Surrendered mama dog reunited with puppies after she refused to leave the corner.

People surrender animals to Humane Societies for all kinds of reasons, but many do it because they don't feel like they can properly care for their animals anymore. It could be that they have to move to a home that doesn't allow pets or they lost a job, making caring for an animal difficult.

Two small dogs were surrendered to Marin Humane Society in Novato, California and the female had recently given birth to puppies. It's not clear if the previous owners felt like they couldn't care for both the older dogs and the puppies so they just kept the puppies, or if something else prompted the drop-off.

Either way, this mama dog was in distress after being left at the shelter without her babies. She refused to leave the corner of the large kennel and just looked so sad. The employees felt for the sweet mama dog and decided to do some detective work to see if they could figure out where the puppies were located.

Keep ReadingShow less

Gordon Ramsay at play... work.

This article originally appeared on 04.22.15


Gordon Ramsay is not exactly known for being nice.

Or patient.

Or nurturing.

On his competition show "Hell's Kitchen," he belittles cooks who can't keep up. If people come to him with their problems, he berates them. If someone is struggling to get something right in the kitchen, he curses them out.

Keep ReadingShow less

This article originally appeared on 01.27.20


From 1940 to 1945, an estimated 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz, the largest complex of Nazi concentration camps. More than four out of five of those people—at least 1.1 million people—were murdered there.

On January 27, 1945, Soviet forces liberated the final prisoners from these camps—7,000 people, most of whom were sick or dying. Those of us with a decent public education are familiar with at least a few names of Nazi extermination facilities—Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen—but these are merely a few of the thousands (yes, thousands) of concentration camps, sub camps, and ghettos spread across Europe where Jews and other targets of Hitler's regime were persecuted, tortured, and killed by the millions.

Keep ReadingShow less
Health

What I realized about feminism after my male friend was disgusted by tampons at a party.

"After all these years, my friend has probably forgotten, but I never have."

Photo by Josefin on Unsplash

It’s okay men. You don’t have to be afraid.

This article originally appeared on 08.12.16


Years ago, a friend went to a party, and something bothered him enough to rant to me about it later.

And it bothered me that he was so incensed about it, but I couldn't put my finger on why. It seemed so petty for him to be upset, and even more so for me to be annoyed with him.

Recently, something reminded me of that scenario, and it made more sense. I'll explain.

Keep ReadingShow less