If you're feasting on the famous Mardi Gras dessert this Fat Tuesday, you might be wondering what the baby in a King Cake means, or where the heck this technicolor dessert came from in the first place. I'm pretty sure that my first encounter of the King Cake kind was in elementary school, accompanied by a warning not to swallow the baby that's stuffed in the sugary center...wut. This is a strange food indeed: with the texture of pastry (not birthday cake), the garish colors of Skittles, and an infant figurine inside that's not unlike those handed out by abortion protesters, you may be left wondering, what is this thing and why am I eating it?
King Cake is a traditional food on Mardi Gras, a.k.a. Fat Tuesday, a day of indulgent celebration closing out the Carnival period of the year (which spans from the epiphany in early January until Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent). Americans aren't the only weirdos eating King Cake: other countries with a Catholic influence partake in King Cake as well, including France and Spain. Indeed, the tradition of eating a King Cake after the epiphany (which celebrates the three kings of the nativity) goes back hundreds of years to Old World Europe, but the oval cakes used to be simple, non-garish, non-baby-containing affairs.
The King Cake revolution happened mid-twentieth century, when commercial bakeries in and around New Orleans began producing and decorating them on a mass scale. Although it would be reasonable to assume that a toddler had chosen the colors for the very first King Cake, they're actually symbolic: purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power. Good luck thinking deep thoughts about those concepts while your drunken, Mardi Gras-partying self crams cake down its gullet, though.
Despite its unnatural colors, nutritionally there are worse things to eat than King Cake. Although the cakes vary, especially in terms of toppings and fillings, you should basically expect a not-too-sweet dose of empty calories from white flour. Also, the thinner of a slice you request, the more confident you can be that you're not receiving the baby!
Speaking of that baby, or other trinkets hidden in the cake: the lucky recipient of this piece is crowned king or queen of the Mardi Gras party. But, of course, with great power comes great responsibility — he or she also must bring the cake next year. It remains unclear as to whether a King Cake baby mooning you is a good omen for the season, unfortunately.
How did that first baby get into a King Cake? Capitalism can take all the credit — or blame: a traveling salesman convinced one of those popular commercial bakeries producing King Cakes in the mid-20th century to purchase his oversupply of tiny porcelain baby dolls ("They can, uh, symbolize Jesus!" I imagine that clever salesman exclaiming). No one would ever be impressed with a mere bean- or nut-containing King Cake again.
Watching your carbs? Prefer to your drink dessert? I checked, and King Cake vodka sure does exist. Here's to a happy Mardi Gras.