A cake made and eaten traditionally around Mardi Gras. Placed inside is a little plastic baby Jesus. If you get the little bundle of joy in your piece of cake, you are supposed to have good luck for the following year. The way I see it, a dentists bill for the capping of a tooth you chipped biting into a plastic messiah isn't my idea of good fortune. There was an attempt this year to make the largest king cake ever, about the size of half a football field with 200 babies (plastic of course) concealed inside.

Through oral history and independent research, I've found two main accounts of the origin of the King cake. First, however, some additional bits of info. The exact time during which they can be made and eaten is the Epiphany (January 6th) through Mardi Gras (varies). Doing so before or after will bring down the unholy wrath of anyone who's traditional about that sort of thing. The cake is usually made from long, thin strips of dough with a mixture of butter and brown sugar slathered on. They are then rolled up and sealed, forming long, round, rope-like strips of dough. These are braided together and formed into a ring. This is baked, and decorated first with icing, then with three varieties of colored sugar: purple, green, and yellow. These are also the official Mardi Gras colors, representing justice, faith, and power. The sugar is added in that same order, darkest to lightest, for aesthetic reasons. The purple will show up with yellow on it, but purple would drown out the yellow fairly well.

The first story is that a very long time ago, when France was known as Gaul, various tribes inhabited the area. To choose their leader, they would make a cake with a small nut or rock hidden in it. Whoever got this would serve as tribal leader (their king, basically) for a set amount of time, perhaps a year, and would then be killed.

The slightly more kid-friendly version, and the first I heard, was that in slightly more recent history, the French king would have a huge cake made with a small token in it. Whichever of his subjects got the piece with this unnamed token would then act as the king for a day. They, of course, weren't supposed to be killed at the end of their day.

In either case, it's fairly certain that the King cake originated in France, and was brought to America by French immigrants. This explains its popularity in areas such as New Orleans. The usual token for a King cake is a small plastic baby Jesus. They almost always look exactly the same, unless you give them plastic surgery with an over-enthusiastic bite. One final King cake tradition is for the person who finds the baby must bake the next one. This is not nearly as fun as being king for a day, obviously. So grab one of these treats and realize that despite all of this, they're far more stimulating for the stomach than the mind.

There is some connection between the king cake and the idea, as presented by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough, of choosing a mock king by lot.

So the idea is ancient and probably has its roots in someplace other than Gaul. In fact, I'm not sure it's even possible to say where the idea originated, given how pervasive it is.

But there are common themes running through its appearance, no matter where that might be. The king for a day concept ties in with Mardi Gras, where the Lord of Misrule rules over the raucus celebration for that day only.

And there also is the idea of mocking the prevailing social order, so that the world is temporarily turned upside down while this bogus king holds sway.

I've also heard of a practice among Orthodox Christians of eating something called St. Basil's bread. It has a lucky coin inside, and the person who gets the piece with the coin is supposed to have good luck all year (assuming he didn't swallow the coin. They also eat this bread on the feast of the Epiphany, which just happens to be the day a lot of Old Calendar Orthodox celebrate Christmas.

Several weeks before the actual Mardi Gras party, New Orleanians purchase King Cakes to share with their fellow students or co-workers. Whoever finds the plastic baby has to bring in the next King Cake for everyone.

Since the unfortunate of bankruptcy of the quintessential New Orleans bakery, McKenzies', a few years ago, it is difficult to find a King Cake in New Orleans that is both tasty and decently priced. So far, no one has been able to produce the sugary pastry as finely and cheaply as the old masters.

Still, there are few bakeries remaining around town that serve up the delicious treat. My personal favorites are Maurice's Bakery, Randazzo's Bakery, and Dorignac's Supermarket in Metairie.

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