Hide the “baby.” It’s Carnival time, which means it’s King Cake time – those twisted rings of cinnamon-sweet coffee cake covered in purple, green, and golden-hued icing with an infant-shaped trinket hidden inside.
January 6, the Epiphany in the Christian calendar, marks the beginning of the Mardi Gras season, which is celebrated as Carnival in Catholic communities on multiple continents.
It’s a time of parties, parades and general excess that lasts through Fat Tuesday – Mardi Gras in French, which is February 13 this year. The next day, Ash Wednesday, starts the Lenten period of deprivation and self-denial for Christians that leads to Easter.
Alabama’s Mardi Gras is rooted in French Catholic traditions, established by the settlers who founded Mobile in 1702 as the original capital of what was then known as French Louisiana.
New Orleans didn’t hold the first of its now-famous parades until more than a century after 16 members of Mobile’s Boeuf Gras Society paraded through the Port City pushing an oxcart decorated with a papier-mache cow’s head in 1711. Mobile literally had to show New Orleans how to throw a Mardi Gras parade.
Deep-South traditions at Epiphany included baking a local version of the French Galette de Rois, or King Cake. At first, it was only served over a 12-day period in tribute to the Biblical story of the three kings who journeyed to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
King Cake season expanded here over time, and became standard fare at the parties and society balls that ran from the Epiphany until Mardi Gras. Whoever got the slice with the hidden trinket (the plastic baby became ubiquitous starting in the 1940s) would host the next party.
Of course, King Cake isn’t the only confection near and dear to Alabamians at Mardi Gras. Moon Pies, the graham cracker-marshmallow snack, became a standard throw from Mobile’ parade floats in the 1950s. Why Moon Pies? The soft baked rounds hurt less than the bruising boxes of Cracker Jack snacks that once were commonly hurled from Mardi Gras floats in Mobile.
Today, King Cakes can be found everywhere – grocery stores like Publix and Piggly Wiggly, and bakeries like Edgars (multiple Birmingham locations, Homewood, Hoover, Pelham, Trussville, Huntsville, and Tuscaloosa) and Cothran’s (Boaz and Gadsden). Get King Cake, gumbo, boudin, and other treats from New Orleans ex-pat Chris Zapalowski at Homewood Gourmet.
Not all King Cakes are sweet. Daphne caterer Gourmet Goodies gained renown last year for its Crawfish King Cake that won top honors in Alabama and went on to rank third overall in a multistate competition in New Orleans. Owners Laura Stafford and Barbara Sylkatis also sell traditional versions.
Mobile hosts the sixth edition of its King Cake-Off competition on Friday, January 19, at the Civic Center Expo Hall in downtown Mobile. At the fundraiser for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Central Gulf Coast, ticketholders will be able to sample the wares of local bakeries, groceries, and restaurants.
It’s a sweet start to the season when the bon temps roll.