Monday, February 23, 2009

A Late-Night Snack Fit for a King

Sunday Night, Biloxi, Miss.--I am working my way through a king cake with great gusto. And the really cool thing is that I don't have to be careful to avoid the plastic baby Jesus.

Baby Jesus, it seems, has posed a swallowing, or choking, threat to the more careless Mardi Gras eaters and has therefore been carefully and thoughtfully placed in the middle, the "hole," of the king cake. According to the note in my bakery box, it is up to the host to insert the plastic baby Jesus before serving. But seeing as how I am flying solo with this king cake and there's no "host" in sight, I'll just let him lie in his little doily manger in the middle. Peacefully. A good souvenir for the kids.

The history of the plastic baby Jesus is cloudy. But I did find this ...

According to www.holidays.net: As part of the celebration of Mardi Gras, it is traditional to bake an oval cake in honor of the three kings - the King Cake. The shape of a King Cake symbolizes the unity of faiths. Each cake is decorated in the traditional Mardi Gras colors: purple represents justice, green represents faith and gold represents power. A small baby, symbolizing the baby Jesus, is baked into each cake. In New Orleans, King Cake parties are held throughout the Mardi Gras season. In offices, classrooms, and homes throughout the city, King Cakes are sliced and enjoyed by all. Like the biblical story, the "search for the baby" adds excitement, as each person waits to see in whose slice of cake the baby will be discovered. While custom holds that the person who finds the baby in their slice will be rewarded with good luck, that person is also traditionally responsible for bringing the King Cake to the next party or gathering.

While Mardi Gras lore varies between the plastic baby being just a plastic baby or a more regal and noble plastic baby Jesus, you might be interested to know that it has even been a bean. A red bean is still used in place of a plastic baby in some parts of Europe, and I learned just today that in the States, the bean gained major popularity during the Depression. As the story goes, beans were cheap; plastic baby Jesuses, apparently, were not. So the bean played the part of the hidden treasure.

But there's a darker, more sinister side to the bean. As king cake rules go, the person who is served the piece of cake containing the plastic baby is responsible for making and serving the next year's king cake and maybe even hosting the entire Mardi Gras party. During the Depression, money was scarce, times were uncertain. So the sneaky king cake eater who found herself/himself with the bean would just quietly eat the bean. And why not? It was just a bean. And who wants to commit to hosting a dinner party one year in advance?

I imagine the dinner party would take a turn when the host looked at all the empty plates and wondered aloud, "Where's the bean? Who ate the bean? I know I put it in the cake. Who's hiding the BEAN?!" And then the Depression finally ended, and we returned to our conspicuous consumption and the plastic baby Jesus.

And now, times are tough yet again. People want to eat the cake, but they may not be so gung-ho about planning next year's party and making a cake. So, you see, eating this cake alone has its benefits. I don't have to share, I have nothing to hide, and I don't have to make any long-term commitments.

I'm not ashamed or embarrassed or marking up my 2010 calendar. Jesus is here, and He says He has my back.