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King Cakes in Acadiana: History and Evolution

Mardi Gras is now fewer than two weeks away, which means king cake season is in full swing. But do you know how it all got started?

Posted: Feb 3, 2021 4:39 PM
Updated: Feb 4, 2021 4:30 PM

The Mardi Gras parades have been canceled. The festivities and celebrations are put on hold.

But there's one part of Mardi Gras that can't... be... stopped. The king cake!

King cakes are everywhere this time of year.

"It's the ultimate comfort food... sugar, icing, cinnamon, brioche dough," Poupart's pastry chef Isaac Fort says as he decorates a mini-cake. "It's the best."

But the king cake isn't a new idea. Its history can be traced back to the pagan celebration of Saturnalia - when Romans baked a special cake to honor the god of harvest with a bean hidden inside. Whoever found the bean became king for the day. Not a bad deal. But as with many pagan traditions, Catholics made it their own, and Europeans baked king cakes to celebrate Epiphany, marking the arrival of the wise men and kings who brought gifts to baby Jesus.

"The king cake as we in Louisiana use it, came with the French settlers," Vermilionville museum curator Anne Mahoney Fontenot explains.

The traditions evolved here in the new world.

"The folklore and the history changed so much that it really varies from region to region, even within Louisiana," Fontenot says.

The cakes have evolved, too. There's French style, New Orleans, doughnut, boudin and a very long list of fillings baked inside.

"Everyone has a different favorite flavor of filling," Mandi LaCombe, La Cuisine de Maman restaurant manager, laughs "That will cause arguments. That will cause unions. Everyone is different."

"So it's to each your own. We love every shop in town," Great Harvest owner Brian Melancon says. "It's not competition. It's friendly rivalry."

But no matter your style, you'll usually find a trinket of some kind inside - whether it's a bean, baby or a button - and the beautiful Mardi Gras colors on the outside. Green is for faith, gold for power and purple for justice.

And voila. That's the story of the king cake.

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