A Brief History of King Cake

Nowadays in New Orleans, king cake can be purchased and enjoyed year-round by locals and tourists alike. However, this dessert is not rich in flavor alone—it also has a storied history which earned it an unshakeable place in Mardi Gras and New Orleans culture.

European Roots

One of the floats at a Mardi Gras parade

Now easily found in every neighborhood in New Orleans, king cake has its roots in French and Spanish culture dating back as far as the Middle Ages. King cakes were associated with the Epiphany—the day that the Three Wise Men arrived to celebrate the birth of Jesus. France and Spain both still have a modern version of the king cake. The French traditional king cake, galette des rois, is made with puff pastry and filled with frangipane, while the Spanish version, rosca de reyes, is made with sweet dried fruit and mascarpone. Originally, whoever found the trinket inside (often a bean, but now these trinkets are plastic), could become king or queen for a day. That meant that even servants could make requests of their masters if they happened to find the trinket. Today, king cakes can be found throughout the Caribbean, U.S.A., and beyond—anywhere a strong Catholic community exists and French and Latin culture thrives.

King Cake Comes to New Orleans

In 1871, the Twelfth Night Revelers, who are known for marking the beginning of Carnival season in the French Quarter, had one of the oldest known records of a king cake celebration in New Orleans. They placed a golden bean inside this early king cake, and whichever guest found the bean was named Queen. However, court fools had a bit too much fun that evening and began to throw pieces of cake at the women in attendance—so they never discovered who found the bean!

King Cake Symbolism

Modern king cakes feature the three iconic colors of Mardi Gras: gold for power, purple for justice, and green for faith. Inside is one plastic king cake baby, which symbolizes baby Jesus. As for the name “king cake” itself, it stands as an honor to the Three Wise Men who visited Jesus on the Epiphany, which is why the Epiphany, on January 6th, is traditionally the first day that king cakes are sold in New Orleans.

Modern King Cake Traditions

King cakes are still a crucial part of New Orleans flavor and dining, especially during the Carnival season. After January 6th, king cakes are enjoyed around the city until Mardi Gras, which is celebrated in either February or March, depending on the date of Easter. King cakes are often served at parties or family gatherings, but there’s a twist when it comes to finding the king cake baby. Unlike the Twelfth Night Revelers who promised Queenship to the bean finder, the guest who receives the slice of king cake with the baby inside is responsible for providing a king cake for the following celebration!

The best way to learn more about king cake and Carnival culture is to experience it firsthand. Whether it’s your first trip, your twentieth, or you’re a local looking for a staycation, purchase your memorable New Orleans experience with Joieful today.