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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.

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The Cumberland Police Department's evidence examination request.

A 10-year-old girl from Cumberland, Rhode Island, had serious questions about whether Santa Claus is real and submitted DNA evidence to her local police to get the truth. On the morning of December 25, 2022, Scarlett Doumato collected a partially eaten cookie and carrots with bite marks and sent them to the Cumberland Police Department for testing, along with a handwritten note.

“Dear Cumberland Police Dapartment [sic], I took a sample of a cookie and carrots that I left for Santa and the raindeer [sic] on Christmas Eve and was wondering if you could take a sample of DNA and see if Santa is real?” Doumato wrote.

Cumberland police chief Matthew J. Benson was impressed by the child’s dedication to solving the mystery. “For her to take that initiative and to push that forward because she has a question that she wants answered, I just think was amazing,” Benson told Today.

The police department shared a photo of Doumato’s evidence, her letter and a statement on Facebook.

letter, police

Doumato's handwritten letter to the police.

via Cumberland Police Department/Facebook

Doumato’s work collecting evidence at the scene of the crime was impressive, to say the least. “She did the work — she collected the evidence, she tagged it the right way,” Benson said. “She’s obviously watching the shows very intently. Separate baggies. She did it right by the book, so we’re taking it just as serious as she is.”

Doumato submitted evidence bagged separately.

via Cumberland Police Department/Facebook

The Cumberland Police Department announced that after seeing her evidence it has launched a special investigation into the Santa inquiry.

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"Earlier this month, a young investigator from the Town of Cumberland submitted the attached letter requesting a DNA analysis be conducted on the partially eaten cookie and carrot remains she acquired on the morning of December 25, 2022, for possible DNA evidence of Santa Claus (aka, Kris Kringle, aka Saint Nicholas, aka St. Nick) and/or one of his nine reindeer. As such, Chief Benson immediately instructed his Investigative Division to forward her evidence to the State of Rhode Island’s, Department of Health–Forensic Sciences Unit for analysis. Chief Benson noted, 'This young lady obviously has a keen sense for truth and the investigative process and did a tremendous job packaging her evidence for submission. We will do our very best to provide answers for her.'"

The Cumberland Police added some additional evidence they collected on the night of December 24th. The most compelling evidence was a photo of a "reindeer" spotted in the area that night.

reindeer, deer

The Cumberland Police Department shared a "reindeer sighting" on Christmas Eve.

via Cumberland Police Department/Facebook

The girl’s mother was excited to see the police were taking her daughter’s inquiry seriously. “A giant thank you Chief Benson and the entire CPD! My Scarlett is going to be so thrilled that you are looking into her case!!!!!” Alyson Doumato wrote in the comments.

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Her mother said that the investigation is just part of her nature. “She's always a little bit skeptical, and looking for the facts,” Alyson Doumuto said.

The open case is still being pursued by the Cumberland Police Department.

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Though there is no negotiation with this force of nature, those with loved ones who have passed on are being given a little bit of closure—one blanket, scarf or sweater at time.

When friends and knitting enthusiasts Jen Simonic and Masey Kaplan realized that they both shared the experience of frequently being asked to finish knitting items left undone by those who have died, they were inspired to create a like-minded community that expanded beyond their homes in Seattle and Falmouth. After all, this was an aspect of the hobby that both women deeply enjoyed.

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