When writer Matt Haines decided to put together a book focused on king cakes, he was surprised that no king cake-focused books existed that weren’t marketed towards children. Haines’ king cake saga started a few years ago when he decided to eat any type of “king cake” restaurants and businesses around the city provided. The pastime turned future favorite coffee table book, now available online and select bookstores, offers readers a different side to the colorful confectionary as Haines also discusses historical background of some of the makers and highlights unconventional king cake options.
Q: What’s your background? Are you from New Orleans? I was born on Long Island in New York. I lived there basically until the end of high school. Music was central to what I was doing at that point. I was a classical trombone player, mostly, and then when I left high school, I left a little early to be in travelling marching bands. I did that throughout a lot of my early adult life. I went to college for trombone performance in upstate New York. After I finished up there, I would teach these travelling marching bands. I got an internship in New Orleans doing some fundraising and development, which was something that I had been learning in grad school. That brought me here and I was working at that organization for a little bit and then at the new teacher project Teach NOLA for probably about six years. And then I got broken up with and was kind of like, “man, I feel bummed out right now, I need to do something big.” And that’s what brought me to the Appalachian Trail.
Q: What was that like? You have to go into towns to get new stuff, like food and stuff. You can only carry so much food on your back. So, every three to five days (five or six at most) is about the longest I can go where like, I can actually carry. It brings you through or near small towns relatively often. And occasionally, it’d be like, “Okay, I’m going to I need a shower. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a shower. I am going to stay tonight, and I’m going to shower. I’ll get back on the trail in the morning.” April 23, I think, was when I started hiking the trail and that went until September 29. Along the trail is when I decided I was going to try to be a writer.
Q: How did the whole king cake thing start? Months before I went on the Appalachian Trail, I was invited to a king cake party in Carnival 2017. I thought if I was invited to a king cake party, I had to bring the best king cake. I found a list online [for different king cakes around the area] and thought “OK, these 10 look interesting.” And I looked at another list and said, “Wow, there’s a completely different set of king cakes on this one, I wonder how many there are.” And I started to compile a spreadsheet to help me make my decision. That spreadsheet just got bigger and bigger. I thought, “There are like 100 king cakes on this spreadsheet now. I should try to eat them all.” I ate like two or three slices a day and ended up eating 80 that year, in one Carnival season. I had a friend who was a writer, and she wrote about it in the “Mid-City Messenger” and her boyfriend wrote for The Advocate, and suddenly, I was walking around in St. Anne’s on Mardi Gras Day, and I checked the Google spreadsheet (the link was in the articles about it) and there were like 400 people logged into the spreadsheet.
Q: How long did the process take for you to complete “The Big Book of King Cakes” from start to finish? In February, I was starting to kind of brainstorm a timeline and what bakeries I might want to reach out to. In March, I was just looking at every food photographer I could find in the New Orleans area and kind of familiarizing myself with what I liked and didn’t like. There are so many steps in this process that I knew nothing about, so just kind of trying to learn these things and try to learn about the publishing industry. I did the heaving interviewing of photographers and in April hired Randy Krause Schmidt, who is a local photographer and unbelievable and did every single photoshoot in the book. In late May, we started doing our first photoshoots and then it was a crazy, crazy summer. We have 75 king cakes, and I really wanted to do an international section and put king cake into context.
Q: Do you have a favorite king cake from the book? Tartine is the first king cake I’ve ever had in New Orleans, and I still love it. I love crazy things and Tartine is not that, so that’s really a testament to how good Tartine is. It’s traditional, with a cinnamon cream cheese inside. It’s so delicious. So, Tartine is my first true love. But I will say, there were so many great king cakes. One I couldn’t believe how much I loved, because I don’t love tiramisu, was Nonna Randazzo’s. They have a tiramisu king cake that we actually forgot to take the pictures of when we were at the photoshoot, so I brought it home with me hoping we could get it in with our next photoshoot. It sat in my fridge for a bit before we did some photoshoots and by the time I brought it back home, it had been a few days since I had it. It still tasted so delicious, I think because all of the flavors soaked into it. It was the best thing.
Q: What else can people find in the book?
The book starts off with what I call “Louisiana Legends.” So, that’s like Mackenzie’s, which is now owned by Tasty Donuts, Randazzos, Haydel’s, Cartozzo’s, Gambino’s. By the end of the book, there is octopus on a king cake. Some really wild, but delicious, still very good. Towards the end of the book, you’re getting the Audubon Insectarium that does a cricket king cake that has crickets on top. Zach at the Insectarium, who has been on national TV as the bug chef, during the photoshoot was trying to get people passing to try the cricket king cake. Most people were skeptical and then they liked it. That’s the interesting part of the book, everyone has their own essay with them that shows what’s unique about that baker or that king cake or that shop or how that unique king cake came to be. And for him and the Insectarium, they don’t exist because it’s like “haha eat bugs,” they exist because actually there’s a lot of cultures that do eat bugs. So, trying to introduce people to this idea that this is a good, sustainable way to get some nutrients, we’re just not used to it.
Q: Do you think it’s bad luck to eat king cake before Twelfth Night?
That’s an interesting question. I mean baker’s right now, like all foodservice, are struggling because of COVID. And it sounds like the profit margins on a bakery are kind of just always tight anyway. So, in New Orleans, king cake season sustains bakeries through any summer that’s typically tough for the service industry here. And so, I don’t know. This is where I become a little more traditional, I would love if you cannot get a kind cake until January 6. I think that makes it special. It wasn’t that long ago, like in the 1800s and before like then and in a lot of countries today still, you only can eat king cake on January 6. That’s it. King Cake originally was the end of the Christmas season, the essence of that what was attached should have nothing to do with Mardi Gras. But then kind of in the early 20th century, when we started doing these king cake parties, rather than the baby or the bean, that you find just being good luck, it also means you have to bring the next cake. Well, that means them that you’re bringing the next cake next week or something, so you’re having another event and then that starts to go throughout Carnival season. it’s another one of these things that tradition evolved over time. Who are we to say that it can’t evolve?
Favorite New Orleans food that’s not king cake: First thing to come to mind is a muffaletta.
Favorite Mardi Gras parade: I love Endymion day so much. The parade is cool, but the day is what I love. Everyone in Mid-City throws a party on Endymion Saturday.
Fun Fact: My trail name on the Appalachian Trail was King Cake.