The New World was founded on the basis of abolishing monarchy, yet one still exists near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Every year when Carnival overtakes New Orleans, the kings and queens of its celebratory krewes parade through the city, aiding their merriment with heaping portions of ritual foods.
Essential to the festive spread is the multi-colored, cinnamon-laced doughy round known as king cake, which takes it name from King's Day, which begins Carnival. Glazed with white icing and decorated with purple, green and gold granulated sugar, the sweet cake with a figurine of a baby baked inside is the only proper way to end a meal during the 28 to 63 days (depending on the Catholic calendar) of Carnival season. “A king cake is probably the one item on every table during Mardi Gras,” says Ralph Brennan, the owner of several New Orleans restaurants.
In recent years, king cakes have spread far beyond the streets of the French Quarter, with a notable assist from the Obama Administration. The White House has ordered 20 to 30 of them for the past three years from Bayou Bakery, a restaurant in Arlington, Va. owned by former New Orleans chef David Guas. He says sales of the cakes, which go for around $30 each, have increased 30% each year. And acclaimed Louisiana chef John Besh recently served king cake to French President Francois Hollande, Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden at a State Department luncheon. “They absolutely loved it,” Besh says. "Kerry was just amazed by the whole thing."
Interest in Louisiana and its largest city has been growing as TV shows set in the state like Duck Dynasty, True Blood, True Detective and the most recent season of Top Chef, help promote tourism – an important economic sector for the region. “Louisiana is hot right now,” says Meredith Timberlake, special projects manager at Haydel’s Bakery in New Orleans, which made more than 60,000 king cakes in 2013. Seventy-five percent of those cakes were shipped outside of the city.
That national demand has caught the attention of big-name grocers. Kroger, the Ohio-based supermarket chain, now offers king cakes in Texas in addition to its Louisiana stores and says it is eyeing additional markets. Winn Dixie, a southern grocery chain with more than 480 stores, says sales increased 12% from 2012 to 2013, even though Carnival was seven days shorter last year. Whole Foods now carries the cake in 41 states and says sales have increased for the last four years.
“It started at the original store in New Orleans, about 20 years ago,” says Catherine Trujillo, the company’s regional bakery coordinator. "They made them there, and it just expanded. There was such a large following from our customers.”
The king cake traces its roots to 1870, according to Arthur Hardy, a Carnival historian. That year, revelers at a Carnival ball followed a centuries-old European custom: A giant cake with one golden bean and several silver beans hidden inside was cut, and slices were handed to the women. Whoever received the golden bean was named queen. Silver beans earned maid status.
The cake has evolved since then. The beans eventually gave way to the miniature plastic baby, a change Hardy attributes to Donald Entringer, who owned the New Orleans bakery chain McKenzie's. Entringer subbed porcelain figurines for the beans to add a note of surprise, according to Hardy. When customers complained of chipped teeth, the baker turned to plastic babies because he happened to have a box of them on hand.
In food-crazed New Orleans, king cakes have become another way ambitious local chefs “out-innovate each other," as the local food writer Tom Fitzmorris put it.
That’s evident at Cochon, where chef Donald Link serves a banana-marshmallow-bacon version and at the New Orleans Cake Café and Bakery, which offers one with apple and goat cheese. They’ve become so popular that Whole Foods now offers a vegan option.
“We're exporting so much of our culture,” Besh says of the dish that has become an extension of the city’s brand. “We’re feeding the nation something real, something historic, something authentic from here.”