The Mardi Gras Twelfth Night traditions of yore were, shall we say, in transition in the late 19th century. The holiday had largely lost its religious associations, according to a story published in The Daily Picayune on Jan. 6, 1897.
"That is altered now," the paper noted, "but the choosing of a king of the feast by means of a bean hidden in a Twelfth Night cake is still the principal feature of the festival.
"The king rules and directs all games and amusements, and each guest must be a devoted subject. The guests for the coming Twelfth Night festivities are bidden to come 'before sunset.' The king will be the person who finds in his portion of cake a silver dime, and his queen will be the guest lucky enough to have the piece of cake containing a silver thimble, the cake being passed and each person cutting a portion."
Too bad that there's no elaboration on the games and amusements popular on Twelfth Night in 1897. But the story does give a recipe for what it calls the "Twelfth Night cake" and instructions for trimming the table.
The recipe calls for marking which side of the cake is for men and which is for women with a "broom splint", and it describes a wreath design "formed of the frosting and candied violets, rose leaves and cherries and diamond-shaped leaves cut from thin slices of citron and stuck here and there."
As for the table decorations, they're more elaborate than the typical setting in 2016.
"A toy Christmas tree about 6 inches high, such as can be bought at any toy store, should be placed in the middle of the cake," according to the Picayune article. "It is very appropriate to arrange three little figures at equal distances upon the cake in honor of the three kings that the feast was originally designed for. Place one of the figures where the splint is removed to remember which side of the cake is intended to be passed to the men."
"Christmas decorations are appropriate for a Twelfth Night party, green and scarlet being the colors needed.
"A large horseshoe, made of red carnations or the red immortelles, and suspended from the chandelier over the center of the table, instead of a scarlet bell or ball, is a suitable decoration, green vines radiating from it and trailing over the table.
"Horns of plenty, made of sugar, holding the red mottoes, and plenty of candlelight everywhere complete the effect."
Here's the recipe for the "Twelfth Night cake," as published in 1897. Please note that I have not tried it, although I do intend to.
If you make the 1897 cake, please share a picture (and a piece).
"It will make a very large cake, but the recipe can be divided if so large a loaf is not needed. Wash two cups of butter and beat it until it is creamy; add four cups of granulated sugar and the grated rind and juice of one lemon. Stir into this mixture the yolks of twelve eggs, putting in one at a time, and beating it well before adding the next one. Dissolve a teaspoonful of soda in two cups of milk and gradually stir into the other ingredients. Add three cups of sifted flour, and then just part of the whites of the dozen eggs beaten to a stiff froth; add three more cups of flour with two teaspoonfuls of cream of tartar, and then the remaining eggs and last two cups of flour. Flavor with wine or a little brandy. Put the cake mixture into a large round pan lined with buttered paper. Place the silver pieces on opposite sides of the cake, and stick a broom splint in the side of the cake to show which is for the men.
The old custom was to put in the cake a bean and a pea to determine who should be king and queen. Put the pan containing the cake in a moderate oven and let the cake bake slowly at first, and cover the top with a paper if it should brown too rapidly. When the cake is baked it should be covered with a thick white frosting, ornamented around the upper edge of the cake with a wreath formed of the frosting and candied violets, rose leaves and cherries and diamond-shaped leaves cut from thin sheets of citron and stuck here and there.