When we turned onto Louisiana Avenue, in view of the wild colors and confetti-catching spotlights of the 57th (55th? 60th?) parade of New Orleans’s carnival season, it was the noise that struck me. The sound of the approach to the parades here is magical, pregnant with anticipation, like hearing a wave in the distance. Soon we would be swimming in it—drums that snap you to attention, blaring brasses and the proud stomping of feet from dance teams and marching bands. And, of course, full-bodied screaming for float riders to throw beads.
I love Mardi Gras, since I learned that it’s not just about watching 20-year-olds do things that will end up on Facebook pages and ruin their future careers. Throughout the Gulf coast, Mardi Gras is a party that matters; it ties communities together. The political realities are complicated, but as parades roll through neighborhoods, families of many colors scream and cheer for the many colored paraders. There is a joy on the street. You don’t see doffed shirts, but you do see, as I did in uptown New Orleans, a black man pick up a white child so he has a better chance of catching the throws. You do also occasionally see, as I did, a married woman give a cop a kiss on the mouth and slip him her phone number. Just because it’s family fun doesn’t mean it’s fun for all families.
My friend Christine reminds me that all this revelry is, in a way, religious observation, an important part of the Catholic identity of this place. The point is to indulge, to really get your sin on, before you go to church on Ash Wednesday and begin your Lenten abstinence.
It’s that spirit of excess, I have to assume, that gives us the king cake, ubiquitous here from Epiphany to Mardi Gras. The tradition of eating a pastry in honor of the Three Kings hanging out with the little baby Jesus is an old one, dating at least to the galette des rois in medieval France. And the tradition of pastry as a last-ditch celebration before Lent is common, too: The Poles have pączki, and the Swedes have semlor. But as far as I can tell, nothing rocks the sugar like a king cake.
They vary in their doughs, in their fillings and in their flavors, but all king cakes look like a diabetic’s psychedelic freakout—pastry rings spackled with frosting and piled with sugar dyed green, gold, and purple. As my friend Jody put it, “They look like something a four-year-old barfed sprinkles all over.” It should be noted that she didn’t seem to find this unappealing, but I have diabetes in my family. Looking at my first king cake made me wonder, for the first time, if I’d picked the right line of work.
But I did my duty, assembling an array of king cakes procured from the finest bakeries, supermarkets, and gas stations I could find. I emailed an invitation to nearly everyone I know in Mississippi to come by and help me eat them.
The clock ticked to 8:00. By nine I feared a lonely evening, just me and my pancreas furiously churning out insulin. But then came Vince, and then Britton, and then Miss Jessie in her pajamas with stories of the Dixie Mafia, reputed to have favored one of the bakeries represented on the table. I brewed coffee and soon we were more than a dozen, mostly transplanted Gulf coasters meeting up with our first king cakes. “Just a bite,” they said. “We just want to see them.” Even the midwesterners paused to consider their glycemic index, but I’d had a few hours to get used to the idea and aimed for the one with the praline-pecan-cream-cheese filling, because no one is going to catch me going gentle into that good night.
The sugar-mounded frosting crunched in my mouth as I chewed on soft dough. It was horrifying, but kind of good. Others partook. Seth talked about feeling his jaw locking up. I ate some more and enjoyed it, horrifying myself this time. The sweetness literally gave me a toothache, but I blamed it on the dentist I went to a couple of weeks ago. I was already making excuses for the king cake.
Then again, it wasn’t long before we, with our tongues and teeth stained purple, silently acknowledged what was going to happen. We were going to eat them all.
If you’re in the mood to check a king cake out, I have two to recommend. Remember that king cake season lasts from January 6th until Mardi Gras, but some bakers will fudge the dates a little if you want one bad enough.
Paul’s—A local gas station put up a sign that read: “We have Paul’s King Cakes!” So, naturally, I had to have one, too. What looks at first to be disappointingly like a supermarket bagel dough turns out to be a dense, soft bread dough, wrapped around a thick coil of cream cheese filling that’s actually tangier than it is sweet.
O’Delice—My friend Sara Roahen (whose book Gumbo Tales you really should read, if you have any interest in why people love New Orleans) led me to this: a yeasted, soft Danish dough intertwined with a loose cake batter so loaded with cinnamon it glows brick red and almost warms your mouth.