Let me be perfectly clear. I love the Baby Jesus. I have nothing against the Baby Jesus.
But a couple of years ago I found myself shouting, "Back away from the Baby Jesus!" into the phone. I was being interviewed by a Chicago Tribune food writer about king cake traditions. He brought up the notion that the baby in the king cake represents the Baby Jesus.
Even though it's widely spread all over the Internet, I just do not believe this is true. Local bakers of king cakes have spread the idea far and wide, though.
Wikipedia cites this history. It's from the website of a large bakery in the New Orleans area that ships king cakes all over the world.
"The Mardi Gras or Carnival season officially begins on January 6th or "King's Day" - also known to Christians as the Epiphany. Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means "to show." Bethlehem is where infant Jesus first showed himself to the world. As a symbol of this holy day, a tiny plastic baby is placed inside each King Cake."
Carnival historians say the something-in-the-cake tradition started here with a golden bean baked into a cake by the Twelfth Night Revelers on Jan. 6, 1870. The king cake was served to young women, and the one who got the bean was crowned queen. (They still do this, by the way.)
The whole tradition of king cakes came from France, and the king cake included a favor, or feve. Feve means "broad bean" or "charm." Early charms were a bean, painted or wrapped in foil, or a pecan. (Does a pecan represent the Baby Jesus?) Small bisque German-made dolls known as Frozen Charlottes were used as favors for a time and are highly collectible. The king cake doll pendant sold by jeweler Mignon Faget depicts one.
New Orleans and the South have other favor traditions that involve foreign objects in food and fortune-telling. Old-line jeweler Adler's sells sterling silver wedding cake favors or pulls to be attached to ribbons and put in or under the wedding cake. Before it's cut, the bride's girlfriends pull them out. The Adler's ones have, for example, a house on one side and "happy home" on the other. (One depicts a thimble and needle and says "old maid" on the reverse.)
An old family recipe for New Year's black-eyed peas shared with our readers by the Haywards, who have supplied New Orleans with Camellia Beans for generations, includes a clean coin added to the pot. Whoever gets the coin will have good luck in the coming year.
Related to this, but not included in food, are the call-out favors prized at Carnival balls.
Many native New Orleanians grew up on McKenzie's king cake, the large local bakery chain that dominated all others until it closed in 2000.
In a 1990 Carnival season interview with The Times-Picayune, Donald Entringer Sr., the owner of McKenzie's Pastry Shoppes, said, "We were the first to use the babies," Entringer said. "A salesman came in one day and said, 'Look at this cute little thing. It won't get lost like a pecan or a bean.'
"I've heard people say it's supposed to represent the Christ Child, but that's not true," Entringer said. "Why we picked this, I don't know. It was cute. It was just a trinket that happened to be a baby."
The favors in the French galettes des rois cakes include designating the person who gets it as king for the day. The cakes come with a golden cardboard crown for that lucky person.
The feves in the cake are considered collectibles and can come in different themes each year, as La Boulaingerie offers locally. Jean-Marie's Collections sells ceramic or porcelain figurines worldwide for Ephanie cakes.
The website claims, "This holiday is celebrated every year on January 6th and tradition states that this is the day that the three wise men came to Bethlehem, to honor the baby Jesus.
"A long running tradition in France is to bake a cake, and insert a bean (feve) inside the cake.
"The person who finds the bean in his or her slice, is king for the day. More recently, this "bean" has been replaced by a ceramic or porcelain figure."
Six to 12 feves are sold in 1,200 themes, ranging from licensed figures (Babar, Disney, Betty Boop,) to animals, history, space, and hundreds of others, all just over an inch tall.
At the top of the theme list: The nativity. Along with a sheep and Wise Men and the blue-gowned figure of Mary, there's the tiny baby in his manger.
In this case, yes, the little charm represents the Baby Jesus.
What kind of king cake floats your boat? Check out our database of 55-plus Louisiana bakers of king cakes.