A festive King Cake from Brown's Court Bakery
I long have been grousing about creeping pan-Southernism — the lumping together of an array of dishes that were once local to particular cities or sub-regions and fashioning it into an incoherent Southern cuisine. Shrimp and grits, for instance, were once known only here in the Lowcountry but now can be found far from any trawler in places like Nashville and Birmingham. You can say the same for the crab cakes of Maryland and the soft shell crab po boys once known almost exclusively in Louisiana. The next thing you know, the kids will be lining up to eat slow-smoked beef brisket in the Carolinas and turning their back on mustard-sauced whole hog.
This once-creeping pan-Southernism has turned into a full-on gallop, and it’s got to stop somewhere. I say we stop it at King Cakes.
For most of my life I was blissfully unaware that there was even a thing called a King Cake.
Now, every winter, my Twitter and Facebook feeds suddenly fill up with blurry images of misshapen purple, green, and gold pastries. People seem to be genuinely excited about purchasing and eating such things. And I have no idea why.
The galettes de rois sold in Paris are elegant creations — layers of puff pastry filled with almond cream, their tops a lovely lattice of golden brown patterns. But the King Cake took a strange turn down in New Orleans, devolving into something that is, let’s face it, pretty hideous: flat, misshapen rings of cinnamon roll dough coated with a layer of sloppy icing that looks smeared on by a three year old. And then there’s that colored sugar shoveled over the top: purple, green, and gold, all the lurid hues of a cathouse. If you’re really lucky you can crack a dental filling on a little plastic naked baby tucked away somewhere inside.
Is this something we really need to import into the Lowcountry?
The very fact that we’re talking about them now, in February, is revealing. King Cakes, originally known as Twelfth Night Cakes, were traditionally associated with the Epiphany, not Mardi Gras. (If you want to know the full sordid history, this NPR interview with Poppy Tooker
, host of radio show Louisiana Eats!, captures it nicely.) In New Orleans, a city never known for restraint, residents eventually began eating them on January 7th, then the week following, and eventually gorged themselves on garish cakes straight up until Mardi Gras and the arrival of Lent.
So we’ve not only lifted the King Cake out of New Orleans, but we’ve somehow transformed it into a Mardi Gras tradition alongside gaudy beads and tits. (Were there any Charlestonians desperately seeking King Cakes on January 6th? I don’t remember any.) Like Cinco De Mayo, we’ve managed to take something that was once associated with a real holiday and real cultural traditions and warped it into a excuse to have a stupid themed party and drink ourselves sick.
But I'm not one to judge. I’ve got a deal for you, New Orleans. We’ll take back shrimp and grits if you guys, please, for the love of the sweet plastic baby Jesus, take back those damned King Cakes.