The History of The King Cake
Of all the traditions celebrated here in New Orleans, the Mardi Gras King Cake is absolutely one of the tastiest!
The term Mardi Gras literally means “Fat Tuesday,” signifying a period of great feasting before the ritual fasting of Lent begins. And the most exciting part of that rich, scrumptious feast is the King Cake!
It makes sense to have a grand cake for the biggest celebratory event of the year. This frosted seasonal cake is enjoyed by the Mardi Gras followers (and most New Orleanians) between January 6 (King’s Day or Twelfth Night) and Fat Tuesday.
King Cakes, which are equal parts delicious and festive, are actually rooted in ancient tradition and royalty.
As the name indicates, King Cake got its name from the kings of the biblical past. Remember the Three Magi in the Bible, who came bearing gifts for baby Jesus on the Twelfth Night? That’s where the name comes from.
King Cake is first served on January 6th, which is also known as King’s Day, or the Epiphany.
The cake also serves as a delicious homage to honor the three kings and their jeweled crowns. That’s why it is sometimes also referred to as three kings’ cake. The official colors of the King Cake, as designed by the Krewe of Rex in 1872, are gold for power, green for faith, and purple for justice.
King cake is quite a popular festive treat during the Christmas season in French culture. In France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Quebec it is known as Galette or Galette des Rois or Gateau des Rois.
While in Spain and Latin America, it is known as Roscón or Rosca de Reyes. And in Portugal, people know it as Bolo Rei. The Bulgarians call it Banitsa while in Greece and Cyprus, it is called Vasilopita.
The King Cake is a special feature of the Carnival season in New Orleans.
The Scandal in France
As bizarre as it may sound, the story of this cake turned quite political during the French Revolution. Actually, it’s not that bizarre if you know that any kind of association with kings or royalty was greatly frowned upon during that period.
In 1794, the mayor of Paris actually insisted that the holiday should be discontinued and the King Cake should be banned. Fortunately, the tasty tradition prevailed. But he did manage to honor the lower class revolutionaries by renaming the cake Galette de l’Egalité or Equality Cake.
King Cake’s Arrival in New Orleans
Ultimately the noble King Cake braved the revolution and finally journeyed across the ocean to the New World colonies. Many believe that the French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville was responsible for bringing the cake to Louisiana.
As the story goes, he set up camp along the Mississippi River on March 2, 1699, after leading an expedition on behalf of the French crown. The place where he set the camp was just 60 miles south of what we now call the New Orleans.
By sheer coincidence, it turns out the next day was Mardi Gras. And that’s how the King Cake became such a significant part of the Mardi Gras celebrations!