Fat Tuesday is the feast before the fast, but New Orleans natives know that Mardi Gras really begins with king cake. On Twelfth Night, or January 6th, many in the city toss out their New Year's diets like a handful of cheap beads and jump start the festivities with the symbol of the carnival season, the king cake.
No party during the Carnival season is complete without a king cake. With roughly nine and a half weeks in the season, that adds up to a lot of baking. In fact, New Orleans chefs predict they'll produce more than a million of the circular sweet cakes this season.
That's not just in Louisiana. King cakes are shipped all over the world. Choices include the traditional coffee-cake-and-cinnamon variety and, for the more adventurous, cakes with fillings such as Cream Cheese Pecan or Mississippi Mudd.
King cakes date back centuries to Twelfth Night festivities, which celebrated the fabled arrival of three wise kings 12 nights after the birth of Christ. As part of the revelry, a small treasure baked into a crown-shaped cake determined which lucky partygoer would be "king," and the next party's host. The treasure could be anything, from a bean (in France) to a tiny baby Jesus figurine (in Spain).
The Creole mixture of Spanish and French cultures brought the custom to New Orleans. New traditions and embellishments resulted in the purple, gold, and green cakes seen today. The colors, sprinkled in sugar on top of the cake, symbolize the justice, faith, and power of the Mardi Gras celebration.
You can be "king" at your own Mardi Gras celebration. The following retailers happily ship king cakes to your door. Or, if you're feeling particularly bold, you can make your own at home. Pick your own treasure, choose your own colors--and let the good times roll.