Growing up in New Orleans, you learn how to eat spicy food at an early age, and you know that January 6 is the first day you can buy a King Cake. Since I moved from the South, my mom has sent me a Haydel’s Bakery King Cake on January 6 each year. I currently live in Chicago, and people always ask me why I am getting a King Cake so early! In New Orleans, the Mardi Gras season goes from January 6 to Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday). The King Cakes are available on January 6, and the street parades begin to roll. There are hundreds of street parades and second lines throughout Mardi Gras.
There is a lot of controversy over which bakery has the best King Cake in New Orleans, but Haydel’s is my favorite. And, to be fair, you should know I am eating a piece right now! Every time I bite into a piece, I’m reminded of home, reminded of many great times when I shared a piece of my King Cake with friends and colleagues, and I am reminded how much I miss New Orleans.
This year it hits a little harder. As I opened the box and gave my partner Joe all of the Mardi Gras beads and doubloons, I could feel my sadness come forward. Besides traveling home for three days for my mom’s triple bypass surgery, I have not been with my family in over a year. I miss them. I miss the food, the laughter, and mostly, the hugs. I would give anything to hug my mom today. But, remember, I have a King Cake… so it is all good!
When I was in elementary school, each class would have a King Cake every Friday. If I remember correctly, the teacher brought the first one on the first Friday of the season. After that, whoever got the baby had to bring the King Cake the next Friday, which continued until the Friday before Fat Tuesday. When it was your Friday to bring the King Cake, it meant that you were the classroom’s royalty for that day. You got to wear a crown, and you got to cut the King Cake and serve it to your classmates.
Now, listen—I love being royalty, but mostly I just wanted to cut the King Cake and serve everyone! I enjoyed all the attention! But—here is the thing—I don’t think our parents wanted us to get the baby. It meant that they had to purchase a fresh King Cake on Friday morning and bring us to school to ensure it made it there safely. Also, they had to buy it, which was a hardship for some families.
Our favorite bakery growing up was McKenzie’s. I don’t think I tried a Haydel’s King Cake until later in life. McKenzie’s closed in 2001, which was a sad day for New Orleans. McKenzie’s was known for its amazing King Cakes as well as their Buttermilk Drop. OMG… the Buttermilk Drops!
The McKenzie King Cake was so big! The extra-large King Cake barely fit in our car’s trunk! And, if I remember correctly, I think it cost $8. I loved walking into the bakery and smelling the fresh baked goods and picking up that huge piece of cardboard holding this giant cake that I would get to serve to my classmates. Although I love this experience, I don’t think it was my mom’s favorite activity…
Each year, my mom would tell me not to get the baby, which it is impossible to avoid getting the baby. Getting the baby means that a plastic baby was hiding in your piece! Well, she had a plan for that as well. She would tell me that if I got the baby, I needed to swallow it! Swallow a plastic baby! Now, if you know my mom, you know she has a fantastic sense of humor, and I know she was joking. I still laugh when I think about it.
When other kids would get the baby, I would beg them to give it to me. Sometimes kids would give it to me because their parents told them not to bring it home. Every Mardi Gras season, I would usually get the baby a few times, sometimes organically, but most of the time because I begged for it!
This story always makes me smile. This year is hard with COVID-19—but at least I got a King Cake!
Westley Hodges (they/them)
© 2020, Westley Hodges (firstname.lastname@example.org)