Jan 7, 201112:00 AM
Living, loving, laughing, and learning in the new New Orleans
I have never been great at job interviews. I come off, I think, as somewhere between mousy and ditzy, with a lot of social awkwardness and oversharing thrown in and way too many instances of the word “like.”
Fresh out of college, I went on a lot of interviews where I would find myself babbling about how, like, my cousin married a man, like, 15 years her senior and then, like, divorced him and, like, married his dad. Or about how my mom dated a man with only one arm and once found his prosthetic arm at the bottom of a pile of dirty clothes and screamed bloody murder. Or about how my sister’s boyfriend and my dad’s fourth wife ran off together. I just couldn’t. stop. talking.
Finally, I went to what seemed like my 87th interview in a week. I was too weary with the process by then to be nervous, and so I managed to answer questions directly and with a minimum of rambly nonsense.
“Where are you from originally, Eve?”
“New Orleans. I really miss it. It’s a wonderful city.”
“And what do you like to do in your spare time?”
“Oh, I love cooking. I cook all the time. Baking, too.”
I drove home and walked in the door to hear the interviewer on my answering machine, not 15 minutes after I’d left, asking me to come in the next day for a second interview.
I went in the next day and got called into the head boss’ office immediately.
“It’s such an honor to meet you,” I said politely, trying to keep a firm grip on my ridiculous brain so it wouldn’t run away from me.
“Oh, my goodness, you’re every bit as tiny as me!” she yelled in a thick Southern accent. “I love you already! Karen told me she interviewed a girl from New Orleans whose hobby was cooking and I said, ‘Karen! Are you crazy? Hire her right now!!!’ Listen, Miss Eve, do you like figs? Because I have been looking for somebody to make me fig preserves. My mama and daddy split up when I was a little girl, but they shared a backyard with a fig tree and they would fight over those figs like crazy …”
On and on she went, a charming Southern lady with a penchant for oversharing, a foul mouth and a size 5 shoe just like me. We fell in love immediately. Raised in rural Louisiana, she had spent years in New Orleans, and in the three years that I spent working for her, I could always get back in her good graces by making a batch of pralines or divinity.
On my first Jan. 6 there, I was surprised and delighted to find a King Cake in the front lobby. In the middle of freezing cold Missouri, the New Orleans tradition was alive and well.
I got the baby, and even though I was new to the office, I didn’t need anyone to explain what was expected of me. I would supply the next King Cake, obviously.
I think Epiphany was on a Thursday that year. On Monday, my boss poked her head into my office.
“Where is my damn King Cake?” she demanded.
“I’m working on it,” I told her.
“No! Every Monday! King Cakes come in on every Monday until Mardi Gras!” she said.
“What?” I said, completely taken aback. “I’ve never heard that. I just thought I had to buy the next one.”
“You do,” she said. “On Monday. On today. I want my damn cake. You have until tomorrow.”
In New Orleans, that would be no problem. I could have a King Cake within 10 minutes if I wanted one. But in mid-Missouri? No such luck. I went to the Haydel’s Web site. I could get a cake delivered the next day for $50, which, when I was in my early 20s, was beyond prohibitively expensive.
Until lunchtime, I held out a vague foolish hope that maybe she would forget about the cake. But by early afternoon, the entire office was harassing me.
“A piece of King Cake sure would be good after lunch …”
“Nothing brightens a Monday like King Cake …”
“Eve, you’re from New Orleans! How did you forget the King Cake?”
In desperation, I found a recipe for King Cake that didn’t look too hard. I had to teach an SAT prep class that night and then stop at the grocery for ingredients, so by the time I had cleaned the kitchen and was ready to begin, it was already 8:30 p.m. By the time everything was mixed and ready to rise, it was 9:15. By the time the first rise was done, it was 11:15. By the time I got the damned thing braided and filled, it was past midnight. And 2 a.m. found me bleary-eyed mixing purple, green and gold sugar glazes. (This was in the pre-Ruby days, too, when I was used to getting at least six hours of uninterrupted sleep.)
I dragged myself into work for 8 a.m., tired but self-satisfied. I proudly placed my King Cake on the front table and went to pour my smug self a cup of coffee.
Within minutes, my coworkers were in my office, and they were unhappy.
“You brought King Cake,” one of them said. “Actual King Cake.”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “Homemade, too.”
“We just had actual King Cake,” another one complained.
“What?” I said, feeling like I was part of some elaborate practical joke or perhaps was going insane. “You just told me –– you all just told me –– that I had to bring King Cake. So I brought King Cake. I stayed up until the middle of the night making it! What the hell are you people talking about?!”
“Well, only the first one is actual King Cake,” I was informed. “After that, it would be too hard to get one. So we just make brownies or apple cake and throw in a baby, and we call it King Cake.”
“I could’ve just made apple cake?” I said, very quietly. “Apple cake? Apple cake takes like an hour to make. I was up until 3 a.m. Apple cake?! Apple cake is not King Cake! Apple cake is apple cake!” I was not so quiet by the end of my speech.
“Well, now you know. Next time, make brownies or apple cake. King Cake is only good once a year.”
I think my mouth actually fell open. King Cake is always good. King Cake is good every single day from Jan. 6 until Fat Tuesday. Who on earth only eats King Cake once a year?
My coworkers were all so disappointed in my actual King Cake that I ended up making a batch of pralines for them all to redeem myself. And the next year when I got the baby? I made a brown sugar-oatmeal cake with coconut-pecan frosting and put the baby in it and called it King Cake. The cake was delicious, but I felt kind of dirty about the whole thing.
Now, I am relieved to be celebrating back in New Orleans, where apple cake is its own thing and King Cake is never a disappointment.
Happy Carnival, everyone!