There was a time when there was no debate about King Cake. There was, for the most part, only one brand, McKenzie's, and only one flavor, Mckenzie’s-style which had a slight cinnamon coffee-roll taste. The purple, green and gold sugar added more to the look than to the flavor.
Mckenzie’s was a plain-tasting brand, but that seemed to be nature’s way of moderating King Cake eating. A person could have only one slice per season and have experienced the range. The King Cake maintained its presence but did not overwhelm.
It is inherent in urban celebrations to seek new ideas. Just as in 1968 a new krewe called Bacchus introduced bigger floats, more throws and celebrity kings, someone around then decided that the King Cake, too, had be to embellished. The exact moment of the big bang is lost to history, but some time in the 1960s a baker began injecting the cakes with various flavorings. From then on there would be multiple points of debate; Haydel's versus Randazzo’s versus Gambino’s. Chocolate versus strawberry versus blueberry.
Neither McKenize's or its King Cake could survive in this overheated environment. Like the parade of the Krewe of Mecca, the McKenzie’s King Cake exists only in memory.
La Madeleline’s galette de rois probably is the purest French-based pastry; it features an elegant almond flavored brioche. But in America, even royalty reflects many cultures, such as the native Creole Cream cheese infused King Cake.
You might have noticed that New Orleans history now tends to be referenced within one of two eras; that which began in 1718 with the legal creation of the city and that which began in September 2005 as the recovery from Hurricane Katrina began.
King Cakes were already a big sales item before Katrina. I maintain that the recovery has made them even more popular because:
• There’s new fascination with New Orleans culture and items linked to it.
• There’s a new generation of young entrepreneurs who have moved to the city and who will create more offshoots to the King Cake.
• With the growth of the restaurant industry even fine-dining establishments are creating their own craft King Cakes. (So you have an idea for a bacon-and-banana King Cake? Sorry, that’s taken already.)
• Web-based ordering and quick delivery will give the King Cake a global reach.
Even in this modern age there are still some ancient questions with which to be dealt. One is the matter of who gets the baby. Usually there is a flow of King Cakes through our office kitchen. Last year one employee wrote a well-intended but firm message to the staff complaining about people who obviously poked at the King Cakes with a knife hoping to avoid the baby. (Such practices, I believe, are banned by the Geneva Convention and the Treaty of Ghent.) People should do as our employee suggested and take the responsibility for getting the baby. Providing the next King Cake is not too much to ask.
I write these words facing my own reckoning. In the office kitchen there was a King Cake left over from the day before. I nibbled on a piece, dry as it was from a day’s exposure, and noticed on the wrapping next to a clump of sugar was the baby. Technically I did not get the baby. It was sitting there abandoned. In the spirit of the times I will buy the next one. Now I have to figure chocolate, strawberry or Creole cream cheese. Maybe there is still time to avoid chipotle-flavored.