King Cakes and Kin

by Vernon Garrison

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The Mardi Gras season of 2000 must have caught me in a good or a weak moment because I suddenly decided to mail King Cakes to some of my newly found kin up in the nawthern  states, you know, Ohio, West Virginia and Arizona.

I sent one to Aunt Mildred, and one to Frances Hoskins, the care giver. I wanted Frances to have one for her family, you see. Then there was Dorothy and Tom Nunnally in Arizona, Charlotte and Bob Chambers in West Virginia, and of course Cary and Cheryl Brewer in Cincinnati.

The lady at the bakery who took my order wanted to know if I wanted to send a card.

“No ma’am,” I told her.

“Well, do you want your name and address inside?”

“No ma’am,” I said.

She looked me square in the eye and asked if these people who were receiving these cakes would know from whom they came?

“Yes ma’am,” I said, “I’m sure they will.”

“Okay,” she said, obviously relieved to hear the good news. “The cakes should be delivered in two days.”

 

I waited the promised two days and started calling the intended recipients. First, I called Arizona. Mr. Tom answered and I asked,

“Mr. Tom?” He said, “Yeah, this is Tom, who is this?”

I said, “I’m Vernon Garrison, calling from Louisiana.”

He said, “Do you know anything about this coffee cake sitting in my kitchen?”

I said, “Yessir, I sent it,” and he said, “Waita minute, you gotta talk to Dorothy.”

He laid down the phone and hollered for Dorothy. After awhile she came on the line and I went on to explain its meaning and how it was an institution here in Louisiana and all about the little baby baked inside and what the purpose of it was. She had read the little brochure that was enclosed and we just had a fun time talking about it.

Next, I called Aunt  Mildred and got Frances on the line. They had already settled on me as the culprit who had sent it. Francis said she had gotten up that morning, gone to the freezer and got the last pound of Louisiana coffee that we had left there, and made some coffee. While she was in the kitchen the door bell rang and she answered it and there stood a deliveryman with two boxes. When they were opened, there were two coffee cakes so they sat down, ate coffee cake and had Louisiana coffee to boot. Apparently, they didn’t care who had sent them. As long as they were there they would eat ‘em. Anyway, we had a long talk about the King Cake and its meaning.

Bob answered the phone when I called the Chambers. I said Mr. Bob and he answered yes and I told him this is Vernon Garrison from Louisiana. He asked politely how I was doing and I inquired of his health and then he said that they were just wondering from where and from whom the cake in the box had come from. I told him that I sent it and that was why I was calling and he said just a minute—you have to talk to Charlotte. He laid down the phone and hollered for Charlotte. Charlotte said that the cake had been to the store. Since a lot of customers hung around the store they just opened it and placed it on top of the meat cooler and as each customer came by they offered them a piece. One of Charlotte’s good friends got the piece with the little baby in it. She said that she had read the brochure but still didn’t get the significance of the baby and I explained how the friend was supposed to buy the next King Cake and have the party. They had fun with it. There was a small piece there when this young girl from the university came in and she was offered the piece. “Oh, a King Cake!” she said. They asked her how she knew that it was a King Cake and she said that her mother and dad were from Baton Rouge. Imagine that—a taste of home.

Mr. Merle Core answered my call at his home. I asked of his health and that of Mrs. Mary. They said there just fine and he said that they wondered about Charlie and I often. I asked about the King Cake and he said yes they had received it and wondered if I had sent it since there was no name or address on it but it was from Baton Rouge. It was nice and they would enjoy it and yes they had read the brochure. From there we talked of different things and we exchanged e-mail addresses. He also gave me the addresses of two of his brothers. We had a very nice chat but he never did say if Mary was home or not.

Lastly, I called the Cary Brewer home. Cheryl answered the call. She was very nice and cordial, especially since she didn’t know me from Adam’s off ox. Cary wasn’t there so we had a very nice conversation. Yes they had received the King Cake and no she had no idea who or what until she read the brochure. We talked all the way through the thing and laughed a lot about it. I really enjoyed talking to her and I look forward to meeting her one day.

A few days later, I received a package in the mail. It was from Cheryl and Cary. It was totally unexpected and a real surprise. They had sent me a six-pack of the famous chili made in Cincinnati and a box of oyster crackers to go with it. I didn’t expect these folks to do anything like this. But I enjoyed the gourmet chili and oyster crackers while I thought about my nawthern kinfolk and their King Cakes.

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Vernon Garrison lives in Denham Springs, Louisiana, and is a descendant of James N. Erwin, Jr., who was the fifth child and fourth son of James and Agness Irvine (Erwin), our immigrant ancestors.                                                                             

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The History of the King Cake

The Mardi Gras, or Carnival season, officially begins on January 6th or the Twelfth Night, also known to Christians as the Epiphany. Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means to show. Jesus first showed himself to the three Wise Men and to the world on this day. As a symbol of this Holy Day, a tiny plastic baby is placed inside each King Cake.

The King Cake tradition is thought to have been brought to New Orleans from France in 1870. It is popular there even today, as well as in Spain, Portugal and Greece. A King Cake is an oval-shaped bakery delicacy, a cross between a coffee cake and a French pastry, that is as rich in history as it is in flavor. It’s decorated in royal colors of purple which signifies Justice, green for Faith, and gold for Power. These colors were chosen to resemble a jeweled crown honoring the Wise Men who visited the Christ Child on Epiphany. In the past such things as coins, beans, pecans, or peas were also hidden in each King Cake.

Today, a tiny plastic baby is the most common prize. At a party, the King Cake is sliced and served. Each person looks to see if their piece contains the baby. If so, then that person is named King for a day, and bound by custom to host the next party as well as provide the King Cake.

Mardi Gras Day has a moveable date and may occur on any Tuesday from February 3rd to March 9th. It is always the day before Ash Wednesday, and always falls forty-six days before Easter. In 2007 Mardi Gras Day was on February 20th. Next year it will be on February 5th.

Louisiana King Cakes can be ordered from several bakeries on the web. Just search “King Cake.”

 

To learn more about the history and traditions of Louisiana King Cakes go to the following web site:

http://www.mardigrasunmasked.com/mardigras/king_cake.htm

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