From Custom to Coffee Cake: The Commodification of the Louisiana King Cake

By Janet Ryland


"It's nothing more than a glorified coffee cake" (Flanagan 1965). These words, written in a 1965 edition of the New Orleans magazine Dixie, seem strangely prophetic of the current state of the Epiphany or Twelfth Night king cake. Although the king cake custom still exists, and even flourishes, the nature of this tradition has changed. Originally, the Louisiana king cake was baked to celebrate Twelfth Night, but when the cake became popularly associated with Mardi Gras, it became a symbol for the Carnival spirit and revelry. The appeal of the king cake as a Mardi Gras novelty has particularly helped increase the cake's popularity, and, thus, its marketability. The king cake has become a lucrative product, and the potential for profit in its production and distribution is attracting the business of large companies. Bakers, catering to the king cake's growing market, have modified their cakes to attract customers. These modifications have caused enormous changes in the king cake custom as its emphasis shifts from the Twelfth Night ritual to the cake itself. The commercialization of the Louisiana king cake is popularizing the custom while simultaneously eliminating its traditional ritual aspects.

in 2013, any office meeting during Carnival season includes a king cake. Photo: Maida Owens.

In its current form, the New Orleans king cake is commonly a brioche roll shaped into a ring with white icing and sugars, in the Mardi Gras colors of green, yellow and purple on its top. Cinnamon-sugar and often some kind of filling are baked in the ring, and a plastic baby is hidden somewhere within the cake. Mardi Gras celebrants begin eating this cake on Twelfth Night, or Epiphany, which always falls on January 6, and continue eating king cakes until Ash Wednesday. During this time, people hold king cake parties at which each guest is given a slice of cake. The guest who receives the piece that contains the baby is the "king" or "queen" for the duration of the week, and is obligated to buy a king cake for the next week's party. In this way, king cake parties continue to be held on a weekly basis, extending throughout the Mardi Gras season.

The king cake custom has been enacted in New Orleans for at least a century ("Jeweled" 1990:150), but since the late 1980s, king cake sales have increased dramatically in New Orleans and other areas of Louisiana. Lionel Kleinpeter's Bakery in Baton Rouge reports that the bakery sold just six king cakes in 1972, but in 1990 the bakery sold 10,000 king cakes. In 1990, Babin's Grocery in Slaughter, Louisiana sold 1,198 king cakes in a town with only 600 residents (Verma 1990:C4). By 1993, most bakeries and supermarkets throughout Louisiana were selling huge quantities of king cakes throughout the Carnival season.

The baby. Photo: Maida Owens.

The sudden and pervasive popularity of the king cake seems curious as the king cake is, after all, merely a festive kind of cake. Most probably, the cake derives much of its appeal from its popular association with Mardi Gras. Originally, the cake was part of the Twelfth Night, or Feast of Epiphany, celebration and signaled the end, and climax, of Christmas festivities (Fitzmorris 1990:23). But as Christmas celebrations increasingly focused on December 25, Twelfth Night's importance as a Christmas event declined, and January 6 became important as the beginning of the Mardi Gras season. Thus, the Twelfth Night cake became a Mardi Gras cake. The king cake is now regarded as a symbol for Mardi Gras because it signals the start of the festival and provides a thread of continuity throughout the season. It is this close connection with Mardi Gras that can account for the popularity of the king cake both within Louisiana and outside the state.

The king cake custom has become popular with Louisiana residents because it is a Mardi Gras tradition in which all can easily participate. The custom does not require a great deal of preparation, as the king cake is almost always purchased from a bakery, and the ritual itself does not demand a lot of time or labor, unlike participation in pageants and parades. The king cake ritual is an informal, relaxed way to take part in the Mardi Gras festivities without having to be involved with other time-consuming Carnival events (Gaudet 1989:119).

Another factor that contributes to the king cake's popularity within Louisiana is its accessibility to all types of people. In New Orleans and other large cities in Louisiana, the Mardi Gras parades and balls are open to only krewe, or social club, members. Not all of the cities' residents belong to these exclusive krewes, and, thus, not everyone is allowed to participate in the traditional Mardi Gras festivities. The eating of the king cake, however, is a Mardi Gras custom that everyone may participate in, regardless of their social standing or membership in a krewe (Laborde 1990:112). One needs only to purchase a king cake from any bakery or supermarket to be able to enjoy this custom.

Similarly, since the king cake is no longer popularly associated with the Christian holiday, Twelfth Night, king cake parties are accessible to persons of any religious orientation. The sacred roots of the custom have been obscured by the king cake's connection with Mardi Gras, a pre-Lenten secular celebration. Many Carnival celebrants are unaware that the cake's decorations were originally intended as religious symbols. (Editor: Purple, green and gold are the Catholic Church's liturgical colors during Lent.) To most people, the colored sugars merely signify the color of the Rex krewe, the official Mardi Gras colors. Thus, the king cake's shift from a sacred to a secular orientation has made the custom available to anyone in Louisiana regardless of faith.

The king cake's accessibility and association with Mardi Gras contributes to the cake's appeal to non-Louisianians as well. The notion of Louisiana Mardi Gras as a time of unrestrained frivolity is an attractive one for many people. The king cake provides a link between the source of the festivities and the people who cannot experience Carnival itself. For this reason, king cakes are ordered by, and for, non-Louisianians to help them share in the Mardi Gras spirit. Thus, the king cake can be viewed as a souvenir of Mardi Gras, much like the beads and doubloons visitors carry home to share with those who could not attend Carnival.

A large portion of out-of-state king cake orders are for Louisiana residents who wish to ship king cakes to friends and relatives who have moved away from Louisiana. Lionel Kleinpeter of Kleinpeter's Bakery attributed the existence of this market to the large number of Louisianians who were forced to move to other areas by the state's economic problems in the 1980s (Verma 1991:C4). The transplanted Louisianians still wish to participate in the Mardi Gras tradition of their former home, and the king cake represents the Mardi Gras experience.

Louisianians also send king cakes to friends who may not be familiar with the custom, but with whom they want to share the Mardi Gras sprit. Often, the cake functions as a sort of seasonal greeting or expression of good will. Businesses are increasingly using the king cake in this way. Companies will send king cakes to customers to express their thanks for the business. The king cake is a particularly effective gift for these businesses as it simultaneously expresses the companies' regional identity and also embodies the festive quality of Mardi Gras.

It is the appeal of the Mardi Gras king cake to non-Louisianians that has particularly helped to create the king cake's popularity and marketability. This market of non-Louisianians provides a large pool of potential customers that began to be tapped in the mid-1980s when Budget Mail Center in Metairie started shipping king cakes. Budget Mail Center's customers were generally New Orleanians who wished to send king cakes, as a souvenir of Mardi Gras, to friends or family members who had moved from the city (Wahl 1990:D1). The king cake proved to be an appropriate way to transport the Mardi Gras spirit because the hardy cake is particularly suited for export. The dough used for the cake is thick and bready, and the cake is not topped with any kind of meringue, custard, cream, or whipped frosting. Sometimes the cake is filled with a cream cheese substance, but the filling is wholly contained within the dough. As long as the king cake is packed for protection, and handled delicately, the cake should arrive to its destination intact. The ease with which the king cake can be shipped and the existence of a large pool of customers for transported king cakes quickly made king cake shipping a viable business.

Federal Express immediately recognized the profit potential that shipping king cakes to other states and countries represented. The company became involved with king cake transport in 1986 when it began shipping cake for most of the major New Orleans bakeries, including Haydel's, Gambino's, Lawrence's and Frances. The partnership between Federal Express and the bakeries proved successful as sale of shipped king cakes multiplied each year. In 1986, the number of cakes shipped by Federal Express was only about 2,000, but in 1988 this figure rose to 11,500 cakes (Negley 1989:B1).

The significant rise in transported cakes, and the accompanying profits, prompted Haydel's and Federal Express to collaborate on the development of a special king cake shipping box. This was the first time Federal Express had created a box exclusively for a specific product (Fonseca 1990:56). The move paid off as Federal Express shipped 31,000 cakes for Haydel's alone in 1989 (Wahl 1990:D1).

The success of Federal Express and Haydel's can be partially attributed to the promotion which the two initiated for the king cake. In1989 they sent 400 king cakes to food critics all across the country to generate publicity for king cake shipping. Once again, their efforts were successful as "orders exploded, and not just at Haydel's" (Wahl 1990: D1). The partnership was dissolved in 1990, however, when Federal Express began using the box the two had developed to ship king cakes from other bakeries. Haydel's responded by taking its business to Airborne Express in 1990. In that year, Haydel's planned to ship between 65,000 and 80,000 king cakes (Wahl 1990:D1).

In 1992 the United States Postal Service joined the competition between the two biggest shipping companies, Federal Express and Airborne Express. The Postal Service began offering overnight king cake delivery to promote its standard overnight delivery service and currently works with 19 bakeries in South Louisiana to send cakes to most areas of the country (Chatelain 1992:B1).

All bakeries and shipping companies involved in king cake transport report huge sales. A representative from Federal Express said, "We set our highest outbound package records during the Mardi Gras season. Our staff begins preparing for king cake season in November" (Wahl 1990:D1). In 1990 the total number of shipped cakes for all New Orleans bakeries was 300,000 ("Jeweled" 1990: 150). It is certain that this figure has risen dramatically since then, as bakeries report that their out-of-state orders continue to grow (Fonseca 1990:55).

Once bakers realized that the appeal of the king cake lies in its association with Mardi Gras, they strengthened this link by including Mardi Gras tokens in the king cake package. These packages are often called "Party Paks" and include Mardi Gras beads, doubloons, crowns, and sometimes even shirts and videotapes. The intention is to send Mardi Gras in a small, self-contained kit. All of the New Orleans bakery chains, and many smaller Louisiana bakeries as well, currently offer Party Paks.

King cakes, whether exported or not, are a profitable industry. Many bakeries report that king cake sales account for a large percentage of their yearly earnings. Kleinpeter's Bakery states that king cakes sales comprise about 30 percent of the bakery's annual sales. Gambino's estimates that king cakes constitute 16.5 percent of its yearly earnings (Verma 1991:C4).

In their efforts to attract a larger portion of the lucrative king cake market, bakeries have begun to modify the cakes to make them more attractive to customers. These modifications serve to improve or vary the original king cake recipe. The king cake has traditionally been maligned as "tasteless" and "dry" because the importance of the cake was its role in the Epiphany custom, not its food value. Now, as more supermarkets and bakers in Louisiana begin offering king cakes, bakers need to create a cake that will distinguish itself among competitors' cakes. And with the recent rise in orders from or for customers in locations outside of Louisiana, bakers cannot depend on their customers' knowledge of the king cake tradition. If these people do not know or understand the ritual surrounding the cake, they can at least appreciate the king cake as a traditional food item and symbol of New Orleans Mardi Gras revelry.

One way bakeries have tried to improve their king cakes is by modifying the type of dough they use to make the cake. In place of the traditional bready yeast dough, Frances Bakeries uses a dough that is similar to that of a Danish. Herman Broussard, owner of Sunny's Bakery in New Orleans, says he uses a cinnamon roll dough rather than the traditional yeast dough. The switch, Broussard says, has caused his king cake orders to grow: "King cakes used to be made of just plain, dry dough. Now they're as much in demand as any other cake I bake" (Guillory 1990:B1).

The notion that the king cake should be like other cakes is a new one. Times-Picayune columnist Ronnie Virgets describes the traditional king cake as "lackluster" and claims that [eating] the king cake . . . entailed some redemptive suffering" (1988:B1). Perhaps this sentiment helps to explain why many New Orleanians consider the plain McKenzie's king cake to be the only true king cake. The dough is bready and not too sweet, as opposed to the moist texture and rich flavor of other bakeries' king cakes. However, while McKenzie's king cakes may be traditional, others prefer a more extravagant cake. Tom Fitzmorris, the food critic for New Orleans Magazine, writes, "There are some truly terrible king cakes out there. You need a cup of coffee to swallow McKenzie's very plain king cake" (1990:23).

The most important change in the king cake recipe is the introduction of fillings. There is considerable controversy surrounding the issue of who was the first baker to introduce the filled king cake, but whichever bakery originated the cake, the result is that filled king cakes have quickly become extremely popular. Gambino's bakeries began selling filled king cakes in 1987, and reported in 1990 that they were selling equal amounts of filled cakes as plain. Tony Cortozzi, co-owner of Frances Bakeries, claims, "Nobody wanted a plain King Cake anymore" (Curry 1988 F1).

Every bakery reported that the plain cream cheese filled king cake is their most popular filled cake. However competition for customers has caused bakeries to create new kinds of fillings. Typically, these fillings combine fruits with a cream cheese base. The most frequently-offered flavors are blueberry, apple, cherry, raspberry, lemon, and strawberry. Recently, bakeries have begun offering sophisticated gourmet flavors, including bourbon whiskey, Bavarian cream, German chocolate, amaretto cream cheese, almond coconut, praline pecan cream cheese, and chocolate-chip pecan.

Another tactic bakeries use to attract customers is to make their king cake unusual or special in some way. Gambino's offers a double-filled king cake, and is one of only a handful of New Orleans bakeries that provide this option. Another new offering is the chocolate king cake which is made of chocolate dough, icing, and filling (Curry 1988:F1). (Editor: This has become known as a Zulu cake.)

As new varieties and better tasting cakes begin to saturate the king cake market, customers have started to appreciate the cake as a delicious food item. Formerly, customers viewed the king cake merely as a tool to enact the Twelfth Night ritual. The cake was important only as a container for the symbolic token, and this value as an item of food was negligible. Now, the emphasis is increasingly placed upon the taste and appearance of the cake, rather than its role within the king cake tradition. And as the ritual aspect of the cake is de-emphasized in favor of its food value, the ritual of the custom as a whole has correspondingly been down-played.

In 1965 George Reinecke described the king cake ritual that was practiced in the late nineteenth century. At this time, the Twelfth Night custom surrounded the eating of the king cake with much ritual. One such ritual was to reserve a slice of cake for any beggar who should happen by. Another ritual was for the partyers to shout "le roi boit" or "the king drinks" when the person who had gotten the baby began to drink. If someone failed to shout this as the "king" raised his glass to drink, he would have his face dirtied by the others (1965:45).

Reinecke also describes the king cake ritual as it was practiced in 1965:

The cake is divided into equal pieces, one for each person at the table, and then consumed. The high point comes when the china doll or pecan is found and the finder is crowned king or queen, usually with a home-made paper crown, and chooses his or her favorite as consort. (1965:46)

Reinecke's description shows that the "le roi boit" tradition had already been discontinued in the 1960s. The emphasis on the royal aspect of finding the bean appears to have remained, however.

An older king cake tradition places many charms in the cake, one for each person attending. And the king cake was more like a cake. Here, a pledge party by the LSU Alpha Omicron Pi sorority celebrates with a king cake in the 1940s. Photo: Courtesy of Maida Owens.

There is no evidence that the "le roi boit" tradition is being practiced in the 1990s and the royal quality that was still evident in the middle of the twentieth century has been significantly reduced. Today, guests who find the baby may not even be referred to as "king" or "queen." It does not appear that people still make paper crowns, although some bakeries include small plastic or paper crowns with their cakes. The custom of choosing a consort also seems to have fallen into disuse. Now, as the royal benefits of finding the baby disappear, the person who gets the baby can expect only to purchase the next king cake and host the next party.

Perhaps one reason for the decline of the ritual association with the king cake is that the king cake is often brought to places or included in situations where the full enactment of the ritual would be inappropriate. A large portion of king cake sales are to employees who bring the cakes to their offices for coffee breaks (Fonseca 1990:55). The introduction of a king cake in the office lounge on a Friday afternoon provides a nice diversion for work-weary employees at the end of the week. The suspense of who will get the baby is a small, contained ritual which will offend no one and will not take too much time from the workday, and the cake signals the end of the week and refers to the continuing celebratory Carnival season. The rowdy, silly elements of the traditional king cake ritual are not appropriate to this kind of environment, but the custom, stripped to its essentials, is similar enough to the usual coffee break to be acceptable.

Similarly, king cakes are often ordered for elementary school classrooms. In this case, the ritual is pared down even further. For children, the ritual of selecting a king or marking another's face if he or she forgets to shout "the king drinks" could quickly become unruly or dangerous. Selecting a consort does not have the same appeal to an elementary school child as an adult, and the school officials might strive to discourage the practice in any case. And as the school buys the king cakes, the children could not be expected to buy the next cake, and if they were, it would be their parents' responsibility. None of the ritual associated with the king cake holds much meaning for the average child, except for the finding of the baby-a practice which is increasingly discontinued because of concerns about liability should this object be inadvertently eaten.

School officials and bakers are concerned that children will choke or hurt themselves in some way on the plastic babies. This fear has caused bakers to be particularly cautious when making king cakes for schools. A manager at Delmont Pastries says, "If it's for a school, we ask if they want the baby or not. If they don't, we leave it out" (Verma 1991:C1). Bakeries are concerned with the children's welfare, and are anxious to avoid being sued by the parents of children who might choke or injure themselves on the babies.

The fear of being sued has prompted many bakeries and supermarkets to begin leaving the baby out of the cake. Instead of inserting the baby, they include it in the cake's packaging, so that customers must insert the baby in the cake themselves. Delchamps supermarkets introduced this practice in 1991 because, as a Delchamps representative stated, "[we] felt we should let the customers stick it in someplace. We didn't feel like we could do it without some liability" Warner 1991:A1). Other bakeries immediately followed Delchamps' move, including Keller's Bakery in Lafayette. Keller's 1992 king cake flyer states:

For safety reasons, Keller's will no longer bake a plastic baby inside of the king cake. The person purchasing the cake will be given a baby that they can insert. . . . However, after inserting the baby, caution should be used when eating the product especially with children.

Some bakers have expressed concern at this new development. A representative of Gambino's Bakeries said, "It's a horrible thing to leave the baby out. They're breaking a tradition by doing that. They're [Delchamps] from Mobile. They don't know how serious that is. The magic of the king cake is in the baby" (Verma 1991:C1). This fear of altering the king cake tradition may be justified, but as a Delchamps representative said "The buyer takes responsibility for where-or if-[the baby] will be slipped into the cake" (Warner 1991:A1). The inclusion of the words "or if" may point to the eventual ban of the baby in the king cakes. Many bakery representatives, whether they felt the baby should be left in the cake or not, believed that a law would soon be passed that would out-law pre-inserted babies (Verma 1991:C1).

But despite fears of liability, all of the major New Orleans bakeries leave the baby in the cake, including Frances, Haydel's, McKenzie's, and Gambino's. None of these bakeries reported receiving any complaints about the people choking on the baby, although a Haydel's employee said, "Sometimes people from out of town bite into it." Interestingly, when these bakeries ship king cakes to other states and countries, where people would probably be unfamiliar with the king cake custom and therefore would be most likely to injure themselves on the babies, they still put the baby inside the cake.

One possible reason for the recent surge of concern about people choking on the plastic baby could be the local tales of people accidentally or purposely swallowing the baby. Everyone seems to know of someone who swallowed the baby so that they would not have to buy the next king cake. It is probable that the swallowing of the baby is a contemporary legend, as ingesting a large, stiff plastic baby would be a very difficult, if not impossible or dangerous, proposition. In addition, since everyone claims to know of a person who swallowed a baby, no one can make that same claim for themselves, the present practice of swallowing the baby to avoid buying the next king cake appears to be only a legend. The root of this legend probably lies in the past when beans and pecans rather than babies, were baked into the cakes. It would have been much easier for a man, unwilling to host the next king cake party to swallow the small, edible nut or bean (Flanagan 1965).

Another tale that may be contributing to the fear of being injured by king cake babies concerns a plastic baby that was unintentionally dismembered as the king cake was cut into slices. In these tales, the party guest either finds an amputated arm or leg in the slice of cake or accidentally swallows or chokes on a plastic severed limb. In this case, the swallowing of the baby is accidental, rather than planned. Perhaps fueled by these stories, a Delchamps employee told a reporter from the Times-Picayune that customers had complained that their children were injuring themselves on the king cake babies. A Delchamps representative denied the existence of such complaints, and called the move to keep the babies out of the cakes "just a precaution" (Warner 1991:A1).

The controversy surrounding the inclusion of the plastic baby may prove to undermine much of the ritual associated with the king cake custom. Other changes in the creation of king cakes are threatening the king cake ritual as well. One such modification is the introduction of the mini king cake. This version of the king cake is created for only one person and often resembles a cinnamon roll or Danish in size. The mini king cake usually contains a baby and sports the traditional green, purple, and yellow sugars. Frances Bakery sells a miniature king cake that tastes like a Danish, with icing and a cream cheese filling. Frances reports brisk sales of their mini king cakes, and France's Metairie outlet sells mini king cakes to parade-watchers during Mardi Gras parades (Montgomery 1990:C1). Tastee Donut also reports that their "king cake" donut, an ordinary donut covered with Mardi Gras colored sugars and a baby sitting atop, has sold well. Time Saver, a chain of convenience stories in New Orleans, sells mini king cakes throughout the Carnival season. These cakes are very popular and the stores often sell their whole daily supply of mini king cakes by noon. Burger King has introduced its own version of the personal-sized king cake. Their product resembles, in taste and appearance, a small cinnamon roll with white icing. The cake does not include a baby, but does feature an edible pecan. Burger King reports that its king cake sold well in North and South Louisiana in 1991, and plans to continue selling king cakes in future Mardi Gras seasons (Montgomery 1991:C1).

New Orleans Magazine columnist Tom Fitzmorris writes, "I believe the loneliest thing I've ever seen was wrapped in clear plastic and labeled, -King Cake For One (With Baby)'" (1990:23. Fitzmorris highlights the potential the mini king cake possesses to change the traditional king cake ritual. The social aspect of the king cake custom is not present with the personal king cake. The baby is still included, but without others to share the cake, there is no suspense about who will get the baby. Thus, the central object of the king cake custom remains, but the ritual and communal aspects are missing. The popularity of the mini king cake illustrates the increasing importance assigned to the king cake as a food item, rather than as an element of a custom.

Another blow to the preservation of the king cake ritual is the practice of bringing king cakes to any kind of party that occurs during Carnival. Parents will often serve king cakes at the birthday parties of children whose birth-dates fall within the Carnival season. Frequently, they request that bakers include a baby in each portion of the cake so that no children will be disappointed at not receiving the baby (Fonseca 1990:55). Although this practice preserves the custom of including the baby in the king cake, modifying the custom to suit children's birthdays again alters tradition, for there is no suspense, nor any benefits or duties for those that get the baby or babies. In addition, the birthday, since it comes only once a year, is a more important celebration and naturally takes precedence over the king cake ritual.

The king cake is used as a cake for other kinds of celebrations too. During the Carnival season, the king cake acts as an all-purpose festive cake, adaptable to any kind of celebration, whether it be a birthday party or a baby shower, anniversary, football party, or Valentine's Day party. Haydel's Bakery reported that it received special orders throughout the year for king cakes suited to a specific occasion. The occasions are often birthdays, but the bakery is also asked to produce red, white, and blue colored cakes for the Fourth of July, and gold and brown cakes for Saints' games. For Valentine's Day, Frances Bakeries and Haydel's Bakery have prepared special heart-shaped king cakes with red sugar on top. Both bakeries reported that the Valentine's cakes had sold well. As the king cake is modified to suit these varied occasions, the focus on the celebration is not on the king cake custom, but on the specific holiday or event.

The Louisiana king cake, originally baked to celebrate Twelfth Night, has become associated with Mardi Gras because king cakes signal the bringing of the Carnival season and remain omnipresent throughout. Thus, what was once a festive Christian activity has become a Mardi Gras novelty, much like the Carnival floats and beads. This association with Carnival has dramatically increased the cake's popularity, for the cake functions as a Mardi Gras novelty that is accessible to all kinds of people. Within Louisiana, the king cake has become more popular, for it provides an easy, available way for people to participate in Mardi Gras, whether they are able to take part in other Carnival activities or not. The fastest-growing portion of the king cake market is in sales to or for non-Louisianians. Louisiana residents who were forced to move when the state's economy declined in the 1980s find that the king cake links them to the Carnival activities of their former home. The cake also appeals to residents of other states, and even other countries, as a souvenir of the wild frivolity that Louisiana Mardi Gras represents.

The increased popularity of the king cake both within Louisiana and elsewhere has caused sales of these cakes to rise dramatically in the last five years (1989-1994). Bakeries, supermarkets, and shipping companies have been quick to realize the profit potential of this growing market, and, as a result, the competition for king cake customers has become intense. As bakers vie for a share of the lucrative king cake market, the traditional plain, dry king cake is developing into a rich, sweet concoction. In their attempt to appeal to more kinds of customers, bakers continually try to improve the texture of the cake itself and, as a result, the dough has evolved from a bready yeast dough to a sweet coffee cake, cinnamon roll, or Danish dough. The recent introduction of the filled king cakes has likewise significantly modified the traditional New Orleans brioche king cake. New filling flavors are being offered every year and these flavors have become both more sophisticated and more exotic. Customers have come to expect and demand the filled king cake over the plain, and all evidence points to the filled king cake eventually completely replacing the plain cake.

As bakers attempt to make the king cake more delicious to appeal to Louisianians who have many bakeries to choose from and foreign customers who may not understand or appreciate the ritual elements of the king cake custom, the emphasis of the custom has shifted from the traditional activities to the food item itself. Portions of the ritual have already disappeared and the remnants of the tradition are threatened by liability fears associated with the plastic babies and the popularity of the personal king cake. The remaining ritual is de-emphasized as its enactment becomes inappropriate when the cake is brought into formal situations or celebrations that focus on other activities. In these situations the king cake becomes merely a celebratory cake that can be adapted to suite any festive occasion. Thus, the future is bright for continued king cake sales, but grim for the Louisiana king cake custom in its traditional form.


Chatelain, Kim. 1992. "Mardi Gras Fun Can Go in the Mail." New Orleans Times-Picayune 10 January, B1.

Curry, Dale. 1988. "Getting Your Fill of King Cake." New Orleans Times-Picayune 14 January, F1.

Fitzmorris, Tom. 1990. "Season of the King Cake." New Orleans Magazine January, 23-25.

Flanagan, Val J. 1965. "Where Kings Cake Reigns." Dixie 17 January, n.p.

Fonseca, Mary. 1990. "Hail! Hail! King of Cake." Americana February, 54-57.

Gaudet, Marcia. 1989. The New Orleans King Cake in Southwestern Louisiana." MidAmerica Folklore 17.2:114-121.

Guillory, Monique. 1991. "King Cakes Light Fire Under Baker." New Orleans Times-Picayune 6 January, B1.

"The Jeweled Crown of Mardi Gras." 1990. Southern Living January, 150-51.

Laborde, Errol. 1990. "Carnival of the Cake." New Orleans Magazine January, 112.

Montgomery, Mike. 1992. "Hold the Pickles on this Order." New Orleans Times-Picayune 5 January, C1.

Negley, Jennifer. 1989. "King Cake: Baby , Pack Your Bags." New Orleans Times-Picayune 7 January, B1.

Reinecke, George F. 1965. "The New Orleans Twelfth Night Cake." Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 2.2:45-54.

Verma, Mukul. 1991. "Local Bakeries Wary of Babies in King Cakes." Baton Rouge Morning Advocate 10 January, C1.

Virgets, Ronnie. 1988. "King Cakes Gone Crazy." New Orleans Times-Picayune 10 February, B1.

Wahl, Amy. 1990. "King Cakes Have Gone Airborne." New Orleans Times-Picayune 14 February, D1.

Warner, Coleman. 1991. "Wary King-Cake Baker Serves Baby on the Side." New Orleans Times-Picayune 8 January, A1.

This article was first published in the 1994 issue of the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany and is reprinted here with permission. Janet Ryland is a folklorist now in Jackson, Mississippi.