What’s With the Baby?

We all know that Mardi Gras season means the advent of those delicious rounds of braided cinnamon dough called King Cakes, but why is there a baby inside? The cakes originated in medieval France and Spain and were brought to Louisiana by the early French and Spanish settlers. The tradition of serving fancy cakes at the bal du roi (king’s ball) quickly took hold, and in these cakes a bean was always hidden. The person who found that bean was responsible for bringing the cake at the next gathering. The bean soon took on new life and was sometimes a nut, a coin, or even a ring! The finder of the prize got to be king or queen for the day, a somewhat dubious honor that resulted not just in supplying the next cake but hosting the next gathering as well.

It wasn’t until the 1940s when McKenzie’s Bakery owner Donald Entringer bought a surplus of little porcelain dolls from a traveling salesman and hid them in his king cakes. Over time, these were replaced with plastic dolls and soon the Catholic population of New Orleans was claiming that these little dolls were actually baby Jesus, a reminder of the season’s religious connection to King’s Day which celebrates the arrival of the Three Wise Men after the birth of Jesus. Of course, nowadays those plastic babies are no longer baked into the cakes to avoid creating a choking hazard for those unaware of the custom. New the baby is included in the box with the king cake for customers to hide in the cakes when they serve it to their guests–so keep an eye out for any frosting that looks like it may have had a baby pushed through it unless you want to host the next party!

Sugar Plantations of Louisiana

Sugarcane has a long history here in Louisiana. When you head out of the city for a plantation tour you will find yourself quickly surrounded by sugar plantations. After Florida, Louisiana is the number two state for sugarcane production in the United States. The harvest usually occurs from late October through mid November. Although the cane is no longer plowed by hand, as can be seen in this 1910 photograph from Raceland, Louisiana, there are still a number of operational sugarcane refineries in Southeast Louisiana, including Domino’s. The state yields about 15 million tons of sugarcane yearly and a little under 2 million tons of raw sugar are produced from that harvest. After the harvest, there is an old tradition of burning the crop. This burning has a number of benefits, from ridding the fields of snakes and rodents to making it easier to pick up the blackened cane stalks by burning away the razor sharp cane leaves. It also has the added bonus of leaving behind ashes that make a wonderful fertilizer for the next crop! Finally, the burning liquefies the sap within the stalk making it easier to extract one the cane reaches the sugar mill.

The Battle of New Orleans

Yesterday marked the 199th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. A beautiful day in the French Quarter gave way to a commemoration of the incredible final battle of the war of 1812. The Battle of New Orleans was fought–and won–just four miles East of New Orleans at the Chalmette battlefield. Against overwhelming odds, both Creole and American citizens of the city united against the much larger and better equipped common enemy, the British. No one knew that a peace treaty had already been signed and that the war between England and the young United States of America had been over since Christmas Eve two weeks earlier! Luckily, the New Orleans forces prevailed. The Battle of New Orleans is widely considered to be the greatest American land victory of the war.

Victorian Architecture Uptown

When people familiar with the architecture of New Orleans think of the Uptown district they usually picture the iconic columns and clean lines of the neo-Classical style so abundant among the old oaks along St Charles Avenue. However, when you take a closer look you will see that in addition to this stately style there are also many examples of Victorian architecture, including rounded corners, ornate window details, and bright pastel colors. This style is somewhat similar to the Gothic steamboat style which is perhaps best characterized by the flamboyant exuberance of San Francisco Plantation. As you tour around the city, see if you can spot the Victorian houses that help create the unique patchwork of architectural styles in New Orleans!

The Houma Indians

The United Houma Nation is a state recognized Native American tribe with approximately 17,000 citizens throughout the southeastern coast of Louisiana. Despite their large population and ancient presence in Louisiana, the Houma tribe has never been officially recognized by the United States government. The tribe has a long history in the New Orleans area, and the first recorded relationships between French settlers and the Houma date back to the mid 17th century. The name Houma, or Ouma, is generally understood to mean red and is thought to relate to the stripped red cypress trees that are found throughout the area.

For at least three centuries the Houma have used woven baskets to transport and store items such as food and clothing. The baskets are made out of plants readily available in the Louisiana swamps, including palmetto, cypress, cattail, and river cane. Today, basket weaving remains an important component of Houma culture as it incorporates both traditions that have been passed down through the generations and a few that have been revitalized in recent decades. The beautiful palmetto baskets are considered to be works of art and can be found in a special exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art now through March 2nd, 2014. You can find more information about this exciting exhibit here and more information about the United Houma Nation here.

The Language of Louisiana

New Orleans is a very cosmopolitan and multiethnic city. French is still spoken in Southern Louisiana by two very different groups, the French Creole and the Cajuns. Despite what many people believe, the Creole were actually the original French-speaking group in Louisiana settling the port of New Orleans in 1718. French remained the dominant language in New Orleans for more than a century, well into the 1850’s. Even after the second half of the 19th century when the Spanish controlled Louisiana French remained the dominant language in the area.

The Cajuns, meanwhile, immigrated to Southern Louisiana in the 1760s as refugees from Eastern Quebec. Descended from the Acadians, the Cajuns now number over 1 million people in Southern Louisiana! If you happen to speak French, listen closely to Cajun speakers and you are sure to recognize many words. But Cajun French has evolved away from the French spoken in Europe and Canada since the Acadians made their great Southern trek more than 200 years ago, and the language has become something unique–just like our city!