King Cake Terminology
The meaning of King Cake Babies and the New Orleans King Cake Tradition.
A Mardi Gras Indian tribe or “gang” is a hierarchy in which the Big Chief reigns supreme—he’s the one with the biggest headdress or "crown"—and other members each play specific supporting roles. When “masking Indian,” he usually leads the singing, decides which direction to take, and calls the shots about whether to meet or “challenge” another Indian tribe. Accountable for the safety and conduct of all the members of his tribe, he is typically a respected member of the neighborhood community who acts as a mentor and sets an example for younger people. On a spiritual level, he is caretaker of memory and culture through which communities interpret their past, express ritual freedom and honor their ancestors. On the street, he earns his props by virtue of a “consummate mastery of a total art form of costume, music, dance, heightened speech and dramaturgy,” as Joseph Roach, in his book Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, puts it. To the outside world, he has in recent decades emerged as a celebrated New Orleans icon—a torchbearer whose exploits and artistry are immortalized in song and upheld as an authentic representation of African and Native American cultural retention.
The ritual of choosing a mock monarch to rule over festivities dates back to ancient rites tied to the observance of the winter solstice. The tradition survived in the European celebration of Twelfth Night, in which the finder of a bean or trinket concealed inside a cake would rule over the revels. In the colonial era, New Orleans Creoles used this luck-of-the-draw method to divine royalty during a season of balls, called les bals des Rois (the balls of kings), that began on Twelfth Night and ended on Mardi Gras. The practice of having a member of a Carnival krewe assume the identity of a mythological namesake god to preside over a parade and ball began with the inaugural pageant of the Mistick Krewe of Comus, in 1857. Comus and subsequent krewe figureheads such as the Lord of Misrule, Momus, Rex and Proteus reigned over rarefied, self-ordained monarchies in the tumultuous aftermath of the Civil War. Heroic adventure, conquest and enchantment provided much of the thematic ephemera for artistically ambitious parades and balls, through which krewemen sought to underscore their elite status, regain lost honor and project patriarchal power in the “real world” of New Orleans society, of which they fancied themselves the “rightful rulers.” Except for Rex—who, in a sense, became the civic face of the old-line Carnival establishment—the identities of the mock kings were strictly secret. In the early decades of the 20th century, new krewes comprised of tradesmen and laborers (Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club), as well as business and professional men (Knights of Hermes, Knights of Babylon), appeared. A gradual democratization of Carnival had begun that was in keeping with, if not motivated by, the "Every man a king" spirit of Louisiana politician Huey Long. No longer was Carnival royalty born exclusively to the upper crust. In 1949, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong became Carnival’s first celebrity monarch when he reigned as King Zulu. Further departures from old-line monarchical tradition occured in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the emergence of superkrewes. Bacchus, who reigns over the superkrewe parade of the same name, is always a non-member recruited from the world of showbiz. The Krewe of Endymion holds a drawing in which virtually every one of its 2200-plus members has a shot at being chosen king. And Zulu has elections, in which aspiring kings mount lavish campaigns for members’ votes. The winner gets to choose his queen. Meanwhile, Comus and his kin still adhere to what’s sometimes referred to as the "mystic" tradition. Which is to say, the identity of the mortal behind the mask is never publicly revealed.
Most commonly, a cinnamon-infused brioche roll shaped into a ring and topped with white icing and sugar or sprinkles in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold/yellow. Its connection to Carnival and New Orleans evolved from the European custom of using a celebratory cake as a vehicle for selecting mock royalty to reign over Twelfth Night festivities. Legend has it that the cakes were made in the shape of a ring and colorfully decorated to resemble a bejeweled crown. The finder of a bean or trinket concealed in the cake, duly anointed king or queen, would reign over the revels, often with a consort of his or her choosing. As a Carnival tradition in antebellum New Orleans, well-to-do Creoles practiced this “luck-of-the-draw” method at king cake parties, known as les bals de roi (the balls of kings). But the pastry’s transformation into a popular comfort food symbolic of boisterous revelry and pre-Lenten Fat Tuesday feasting is a relatively recent, marketing-driven phenomenon. After the now-defunct McKenzie’s Pastry Shoppes began advertising king cake on WDSU-TV, in the late 1950s, the tasty treat began to appear with increasing frequency in homes and offices after Twelfth Night, as a festive gastronomic prelude to Mardi Gras. By then a plastic baby was hidden in the cake, and tradition held that whoever received the slice with the baby would be obliged to buy a cake for the next party. Eventually, king cake became so commonplace, appearing at almost any get-together during the Carnival season, that the old luck-of-the-draw traditions became more the exception than the rule. The emphasis shifted to taste and appearance, as bakers introduced new variations with flavored fillings: cream cheese, blueberry, pecan praline, even crawfish. Demand for king cake grew exponentially with the advent of the express shipping and Internet ordering, as what was once a local custom became the most popular way to share the Mardi Gras spirit with friends, relatives and corporate customers.
An endearing and venerated symbol of Mardi Gras, the king cake baby is a plastic doll with a fascinating lineage dating back to ancient times, when a tiny token would be concealed in bread or cake as a symbol of fertility and new life. Like other observances tied to the winter solstice, Saturnalia—the Roman festival held in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture and civilization—commemorated the death and rebirth of nature. The mock ruler of the festivities, the King of Saturnalia, was chosen by throwing dice, drawing a lot, or discovering a fava bean or coin in a piece of cake. In adopting this custom, Christians transformed it into a symbolic reenactment of Epiphany. In France, the bean (la feve) eventually was replaced by a bean-sized baby Jesus; its discovery memorialized the discovery of Jesus’ divinity by the Magi. Traditionally, the finder of the token would reign over festivities on Twelfth Night (January 6), which commemorates the Magi’s visit to the manger. Transplanted to colonial Louisiana, king cakes would contain a bean, almond, pecan or trinket. As early as the 1930s, some cakes had porcelain baby dolls, often called feves; in the 1950s, plastic babies began to take over. Thus, it became customary for whoever received the slice of cake containing the baby to announce, “I got the baby!” Nowadays in New Orleans, black babies and even glow-in-dark babies with angel’s wings have appeared on the scene, and versions cast from sliver and gold are featured in fancy lines of jewelry.
The generic term for a Carnival organization, dating to the founding of the Mistick Krewe of Comus in 1857. In ancient mythology, Comus is the son of necromancer Circe and reveler Bacchus. But the Comus krewemen drew their inspiration from the poetry of English Puritan John Milton. In his list of "persons" at the front of A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle, written in 1634, Milton refers to "Comus and his crew." In adopting the whimsical variation of "crew" and archaic spelling of "mystic," the founders of Comus, who were of of Anglo-Saxon descent, supposedly intended to give their Carnival endeavor an Old English flavor. Before Comus, Mardi Gras street processions were mostly impromptu happenings—relatively small, unorganized and sometimes unruly. By forming a social club for the purpose of planning a scripted parade and tableau ball, writes sociologist Kevin Fox Gotham in Authentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture and Race in the Big Easy, Comus "rationalized the production of Carnival." In a torch-lit procession on the night of Mardi Gras, with two floats, brass bands and costumed maskers, the Comus krewemen presented "The Demon Actors in Milton’s Paradise Lost,” a theme carried through in the tableaux staged at their exclusive ball. By adopting a mythological namesake and presenting a thematic, meticulously organized street spectacle, followed by a tableau ball that was more a cultural performance (staged before formally attired guests) than a typical Carnival masquerade dance, Comus established a paradigm that would be widely imitated. In effect, the resulting “krewe system” clearly delineated the most recognizable elements of the Carnival celebration into public and private spheres. The former consisted of parades in which the general populace was relegated to the role of spectators, while masked krewemen, as self-appointed arbiters of culture, towered above them on fanciful floats. Krewe balls, which became known as Carnival balls, were private, invitation-only affairs, in which krewe members and their “royal” courts assumed roles and enacted rituals that reinforced their lofty status. Over time, a variety of new Carnival organizations came on the scene that adopted the “krewe” appellation but didn’t necessarily follow the old protocols—thus loosening the word’s association with the specific innovations established by Comus. Nowadays, “krewe” can refer to any group, no matter how loosely organized, that rallies around a particular idea, theme or plan involving Carnival merrymaking.
The title bestowed upon the potentate of the Twelfth Night Revelers at their debut in 1870. In olden times, as James Gill explains in his book Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans, the name was given to "the humorous fellow who organized revels from Christmas to Twelfth Night in the great houses of Europe." These seasonal extravaganzas featured conjurers, acrobats, jugglers, harlequins and other carnivalesque characters such as Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In New Orleans, the Revelers-—one of the most elite non-parading Carnival organizations—have been known to issue invitations to their opulent Twelfth Night ball in the name of The Lord of Misrule.
French for "Fat Tuesday." Occurring on any Tuesday from February 3 through March 9, Mardi Gras is tied to Easter, which falls on the first Sunday after the full moon following the Spring Equinox. Although Church fathers established Easter as a movable holiday in 325, it wasn’t until 1582, under Pope Gregory XIII, that Mardi Gras became a holiday on the Christian calendar—a feast day marking the climactic end of Carnival indulgence and the beginning of Lenten season of atonement and abstinence. Mardi Gras is always scheduled 47 days preceding Easter (the 40 days of Lent plus seven Sundays). A citywide extravaganza that can be experienced on many different levels, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is not so much an “event” as a cultural phenomenon that is expressed through a range of art forms and a dizzying amalgamation of happenings and habits. While "Mardi Gras" generally refers to the festivities themselves, it’s also a moniker sometimes applied to a reveler. So, for example, a New Orleanian might greet a masker by saying: "Hey, where y’at, you Mardi Gras?"
The specific roles, duties and accoutrements of Carnival queens, and the methods of their choosing, can vary considerably among krewes. The opulent crown, scepter and necklace that adorn the queen of the oldest of the old-line krewes, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, feature a delicate lily of the valley motif, whereas the queen of the jocular Krewe of Tucks has been known to wield a fancifully decorated toilet bowl plunger. The experience of the queen of the Mystic Orphans and Misfits (M.O.M.s), Inertia, who along with consort Quasimodo reigns over a bawdy costume ball revered by the Mardi Gras demimonde, is, to be sure, more bacchanalian and jesting than that of the Queen of Carnival, consort to his majesty Rex. But all will be admired and exalted, for being queen is the event of a lifetime. The traditions associated with Carnival queens took root in the aftermath of the Civil War, when elite krewemen began putting their daughters and granddaughters on thrones at scripted tableau balls. As idealized embodiments of the genteel femininity of the Old South, queens and maids justified the krewemen’s masquerade as kings and chivalrous protectors in a make-believe realm of romance and enchantment. Carnival courts were—and still are—an affirmation of social status in which eligible young ladies on the threshold of adulthood presented themselves with grace and polished regality. Although a krewe will typically lend its queen the crown jewels and mantle, her parents foot the bill for her (often lavish) gown, the details of which can command rhapsodic superlatives in the society pages of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Maintaining a regal posture isn’t easy when walking in an ensemble—dress, Medici collar and mantle—that can weigh upwards pf 70 pounds, so queens wear a custom-fit harness designed to relieve strain on the shoulders and back. A protocol specialist coaches the queens of high-society Carnival in proper royal comportment—training that is sometimes bemusedly referred to as “Queen School.” Which is not to say that all queens partake in pomp and circumstance suggestive of European Renaissance pageantry. In the context of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe, a queen is a female member who masks Indian. Some tribes have multiple queens. They’re not “chosen,” generally don’t receive special treatment and, like other members of the tribe, are expected to learn Mardi Gras Indian folkways and handle themselves in a way that brings glory and respect to the big chief.
January 6. Also known as Feast of the Epiphany, King’s Day and the twelfth day of Christmas, it commemorates the revelation of Christ’s divinity and the coming of the Magi—the "three wise men from the east" who visited baby Jesus in Bethlehem on the twelfth day following his birth. Over time, as the story of the Epiphany was romanticized and embellished, the gift-bearing wise men became "kings," and the occasion evolved into a major holiday imbued with royal associations and celebrated with gift giving and revels featuring elaborate entertainments and humorous characters. It became a custom to choose a mock king to rule over the festivities. In the most widespread convention, a cake would be divided, and the person who found a bean, or perhaps a coin, in his piece would be crowned. Transplanted to colonial Louisiana, Twelfth Night became an occasion for celebrants to ring in the start of the Carnival season, with the first in a series of les bals de roi (the balls of kings). Whoever’s cake slice contained the bean, almond, pecan or trinket would get to select a royal consort. A merry-go-round of balls would follow, ending on Fat Tuesday. Each week a new king and queen were crowned. Typically, the reigning queen would host the next gala at her home and the king would foot the bill. Nowadays in New Orleans, as the kick-off to Carnival, Twelfth Night is celebrated with king cake and revelry, including the ball of the Twelfth Night Revelers, an elite Carnival krewe, and the streetcar ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows.