Last Monday was Twelfth Night, or Day of the Epiphany, when the Christian tradition informs us that the three wise men finally made it to Mary and Joseph’s place and a baby shower for the holy infant with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This season a classic “Far Side” cartoon meme circulated depicting the so-called fourth wise man who was preemptively turned away by a travel-agent angel; he showed up bearing fruitcake as his gift. Perhaps he would have fared better with an ovate, spice-laden carnival king cake instead.
Twelfth Night marks the official end of the Yuletide and the beginning of carnival season running until Lent. At south Louisiana Walmarts, it’s also the day Christmas final markdowns are pushed aside and Mardi Gras masks, beads and all manner of party and parade-going paraphernalia are squeezed in near the Valentine candy.
In most parts of the country, we drop into the easy chair and plop the figurative Alka-Seltzer tablets into the toothbrush glass with “oh, what a relief” as Christmas and New Year’s busyness ends. Not so around New Orleans. The red and green tinsel comes down and the carnival colors of green, purple and gold are strung. And the king cakes show up in stacks at bakeries, supermarkets and even gas stations along Interstate 10.
I was in Louisiana to see my alma mater, Baylor University, play Georgia in the Sugar Bowl at the Superdome. The Bears lost as we all know. But no tears for me; the season was a winner. Leaving my hometown in the Big Easy outskirts, I made the usual stop at Winn-Dixie to stock up on Louisiana ex-patriate supplies: Blue Plate Mayonnaise, Community Dark Roast Coffee, Leidenheimer’s French bread — it was the Germans, not Frenchmen, who perfected those crusty signature po-boy loaves — and Chee-Wees. The latter is a regional snack similar to Cheetos but much tastier because, well, they’re baked in New Orleans. And at this time of year: king cakes.
I opt for the classic cinnamon versions with no filling. For one, the classic travels better with no cream or jam inside. And for the other, a king cake is already something of a Sara Lee coffee ring dressed in drag slathered generously with white icing and sprinkled with carnival-colored sugar and float-throw plastic beads. Of course, the tiny pink, naked baby doll is included. No need for an nth degree of moist filling sweetness in my view.
As most know, the king cake baby is hidden inside and whoever gets the prize piece is either designated king or queen (if at a carnival krewe fete) or, among commoners, the chosen one provides the cake for the next party or office break-room get-together. The European king-cake tradition dates back 300 years or so and was readily adapted and adopted into Creole Louisiana culture. The tiny doll was initially meant to represent Baby Jesus while sometimes beans were used instead of the baby. The Twelfth Night Revelers, New Orleans’ second oldest carnival organization, stages the first ball of the season each Jan. 6. The queen is chosen among the prospective debutantes when she bites into a golden bean in her piece. Runners-up settle for silver.
Growing up in Louisiana one inures to such odd customs. Outsiders have some difficulty grasping the difference between Creole and Cajun cuisine as exampled by Baylor benefactor Drayton McLane’s pre-Sugar Bowl misconception quoted in the press. Mr. McLane, the cuisine at New Orleans’ famous restaurant Commander’s Palace is Creole and continental French for the most part, not Cajun. So, understanding the entire season known as Carnival versus that one day, Mardi Gras, which culminates it all, can also be enigmatic as are the masked krewes that stage balls and roll parades. But for the most part, krewes are simply old money, old-boy networks similar to organizations in Northeast port cities. But city fathers up north don’t dress up in white tights, powdered wigs, gold lamé and glittered dancing shoes.
This got me to thinking. We’ve been through the excruciating ordeal of the Democrats trying to figure out who amongst the hordes to run in 2020 against King, er, President Trump. There was more self-foot-shooting with intra-party squabbling than focusing on the incumbent monarch’s chinked armor.
A better process would be a king-cake party. No matter the crowd around the dining room table, each hopeful gets a piece. The cake could be decorated in red, white and blue rather than the green-purple-gold trinity. Naturally, the poly-vinyl-chloride baby is to be eschewed for a politically correct, organic, all-inclusive speckled butter bean. Whoever gets the bean runs as party nominee. Simple, neat and a gateway to spending political and financial capital on the party’s opponent, not in family tiffs.
You laugh? Important leaders have been chosen as strangely over the ages. If not by royal birthright, then by abdications, shame-ridden resignations or even standing in corners of church fellowship halls in Iowa.
After all, a puff of smoke indicates the choice of the new Holy Father. N’est-ce pas?