The history and evolution of King Cakes

Southern Food and Beverage Museum

An oral history and digital exhibition that captures the diversity and innovation of New Orleans by charting the evolution and cultural importance of the celebrated King Cake

Twelfth Night Cake or King Cake

The twelfth night cake or king cake, traces its origins to medieval Europe. Catholic countries celebrated the Epiphany on 6 January through the consumption of specific pastries. This religious holiday marked the revelation of the newborn Jesus Christ as God incarnate during the visit of the three Magi. It also marked the start of the Carnival season, which ended weeks later on Mardi Gras.

The exact origins of the New Orleans king cake are debated and uncertain. However, it was mostly likely transformed by the myriad of settlers, immigrants and slaves that resided in New Orleans. It was influenced by both French (1718-1762; 1803) and Spanish (1762-1803) settlers as well as Anglo-Americans, Irish and German immigrants, and African slaves.

Twelfth Night Revelers and Choosing a Queen

The Twelfth Night Revelers, formed in 1870, paraded through the streets on 6 January to the French Opera House, where they selected their royalty. While some krewes would vote annually for their royal positions, other groups left the decisions to chance. A cake became the means of placing members in equal standing.

Arthur Hardy (Mardi Gras Guide) discussing Twelfth Night Revelers and King Cake

Feves and Porcelain Favors

Before the baby became a ubiquitous trinket in king cakes, bakers had traditionally embedded a fève (bean) into the king cake. The person who found the fève in a slice of cake became king for the day and had to host the next king cake party.

However, on rare occasions in the early twentieth century, a tiny porcelain figure known as a Frozen Charlotte was inserted into the cake. The doll took its name from a nationally famous poem published in Maine in 1843 that described a young girl so proud of her dress that she refused to wear a coat; she freezes to death on her sleigh ride to a New Year's ball.

Plastic King Cake Babies

Donald Entringer, the owner of McKenzie’s Bakery, recalled using china dolls since the late 1930s, when a cake ornament salesman offloaded a supply that he could not sell. Most bakeries switched to cheaper plastic babies after the Second World War.

David Haydel Jr. (Haydel's Bakery) discussing the availability of the brown king cake baby

The New Orleans King Cake baby

The standard king cake baby was a pink or peach colored trinket but in the mid 1980s bakeries began to include brown king cake babies to reflect the racial demographics of the city. Nowadays, king cake babies are available in a variety of colors, including purple, green and gold.

Chaya Conrad (Bywater Bakery) discussing the gold king cake baby

King Cake Season

Traditionally eaten on January 6th, the Twelfth Night cake was initially solely associated with Epiphany. It quickly became a feature of the entire carnival season. However, before the 1950s, visitors and locals ate donuts rather than king cake on Mardi Gras day. In the 1920s and 1930s the journal for the New Orleans Master Bakers' Association exclaimed, “the doughnut is king in New Orleans on Mardi Gras.”

As the king cake gained popularity several bakeries began to offer king cake year round. Tourists visiting New Orleans wanted a taste of Mardi Gras outside of carnival season, and some bakeries offered individual slices and yearlong shipping to meet the demand.

However, many bakeries and native New Orleanians insist on observing the carnival season. Many narrators asserted that they only eat king cake from January 6th to Mardi Gras.

Dana Logsdon (Angelo Brocato's) on traditions of king cake season

Myths of the King Cake Baby

Alongside the tradition of hosting the next king cake party if eating a slice with the trinket, several myths surrounding the king cake baby have emerged.

Due to the cakes' connection with Epiphany many people assume the king cake baby represents the baby Jesus. Others vehemently resist the connection of the king cake baby with Jesus. This myth may be influenced by religious meaning of the Latin American king cake, known as Rosca de reyes. The baby in the Rosca de Reyes represents Jesus and the finder traditionally hosts a party on Candlemas Day (February 2nd) to celebrate the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.

Another common myth is that some people swallow the baby to avoid hosting the next king cake party. Various interviewees asserted that they knew people who swallowed the baby. Although dangerous to swallow the baby, this legend is rooted in the history of the cake when swallowing as finders could easily eat the pecan or bean. For example, a 1965 article in the Times-Picayune magazine, Dixie, claimed that in the past "when a boy who didn't want to throw a party the following week got the slice with the 'bean,' he would swallow the pecan (not so with girls; they almost always are glad to get the honor)."

Why are most king cakes not homemade?

Although various cookbooks have included recipes for king cake, many New Orleanians purchase rather than bake the cake. Even in 1899, New Orleanian Alice Berthelot Gendron recorded buying a king cake in her diary, she wrote "We came back with a great many small aunt dropped a bag containing a king cake. Fortunately the bag did not burst so the cake was not spoiled."

In contrast to the famous home-cooked New Orleanian dishes such as gumbo, jambalaya and red beans and rice, king cake is largely purchased from bakeries. Bakers and customers discussed the difficulties of baking king cakes in New Orleans as the changing heat and humidity caused many challenges. The time-consuming nature of baking also led many people to purchase the cakes. In recent years king cake mixes have enabled customers to more easily bake their own king cake at home.

Customer discussing why she does not bake her own king cakes

Beyond New Orleans: Shipping King Cakes

From the mid-1980s New Orleans king cakes began to be available outside the city. In 1986 Federal Express partnered with various bakeries such as Gambino's, and Haydel's and offered shipping to customers nationwide. Alongside the king cake customers receive a taste of carnival as some bakeries include beads, doubloons, masks and a Mardi Gras Guide.

In 1985 the collapse of the oil industry led to widespread unemployment and many residents left the city looking for work. Many of these New Orleanian migrants wanted to continue Mardi Gras traditions in their new homes and therefore ordered king cakes from local bakeries. Likewise the forced displacement caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 increased the sales of king cake nationwide as New Orleanians celebrated carnival and introduced king cake to friends and neighbors in cities throughout the United States.

Mark Bologna (Beyond Bourbon Street podcast)

King Cake and a New Orleans Identity

King Cake remains closely identified with New Orleans and Mardi Gras despite its increasing popularity (and availability) throughout the United States.

Linh Garza (Dong Phoung Bakery) describes why she thinks king cake is tied to New Orleans and Mardi Gras. She said, "Mardi Gras is always about partying , letting go, you know being—you know, just eating a lot of foods. So I think king cake fits right in—having the colors on the king cakes being very festive you know like—I think iit just fits right in to the whole culture and the celebration, the idea of celebrating for two months"

On King Cake and Mardi Gras

King Cake Innovations

In post-Katrina New Orleans bakeries contributed to the rebuilding and reinvention of New Orleans. They enabled residents to celebrate Mardi Gras and continue their king cake traditions.

Many pastry chefs and bakers returned to the city opening their businesses to first responders and returning residents. The traditions and customs surrounding king cake not only returned but bakers also created new versions of the classic cake.

Culinary innovations proliferated as bakeries experimented with king cake. Unique king cakes began to appear such as savory king cakes, vegan king cakes, gluten free king cakes, organic king cakes, and glazed king cakes.

Tariq Hanna, owner of Sucre, explained the bakery's unique king cake and some customers' resistance to change. He said, "I had a particular style and everybody had become very, very aware of what the Sucre style was and that was shimmery and lustry and glittery and sparkly...I once said that, you know, our king cake is if Ziggy Stardust got his hands on a king cake...Seriously, there was some people who were like angry about us. You know, I understand that people are very traditional about it."

Sean O'Mahoney (Breads on Oak) on vegan, organic and 'adult' king cakes
Credits: Story

George Reinecke, "New Orleans Twelfth Night Cake," Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, vol. 2, pp.45-54.

Rafael Hernandez, "Rosca de Reyes" in Maria Herrera-Sobek (ed.) Celebrating Latino Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Cultural Traditions, Volume 1 , 1000-3.

Val J. Flanagan, "Where King's Cake Reigns," Dixie, 14.

Janet Ryland, "From Custom to Coffee Cake: The Commodification of the New Orleans King Cake," Louisiana Folklore Miscellany , 1994.

King Cake, Bakeries and Mardi Gras Oral History Collection, John and Bonnie Boyd Hospitality and Culinary Library.

Marcia Gaudet, "The New Orleans King Cake in Southwest Louisiana," Marcia Gaudet and James C. McDonald (eds), Mardi Gras, Gumbo and Zydeco , (University Press of Mississippi, 2003), 48-57.

Photography by Stephen Binns.

I would like to thank all interviewees for freely sharing their experiences of king cake and carnival with me. Interviews were conducted in busy bakeries and king cake parties, I apologise for any background noise.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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