What is the history of the king cake?
Where but in New Orleans would a confection that doesn't even resemble a "cake" get so much attention? Everybody takes sides on the best one in town and whether the "plain" ones -- as the purists claim -- are superior to those stuffed with fruit filling, cream cheese, nuts, chocolate or whatever. And many are still weeping over the fact that McKenzie's Bakery and its king cakes are now part of Big Easy history.
King cakes can be traced back to the Middle Ages in Europe. The Three Wise Men were honored during the celebration of Christmas with their own special feast day -- Epiphany, the 12th night after the birth of Christ. This day became known as "Twelfth Night" and was celebrated with pageants and special cakes. Children were given gifts to symbolize the gifts given by the kings to the baby Jesus.
When the Europeans arrived in New Orleans, the Creole celebrations included "Bals de Roi" where kith and kin gathered and enjoyed a traditional king cake. In the cake was a hidden bean, "la feve," and the lucky finder would be named "Roi or Reine de la Feve." Their reward would be to reign over the next ball.
In January 1870, the Carnival krewe called the Twelfth Night Revelers debuted. And in 1871, they began the tradition of selecting a queen. For this ceremony, a cake with a bean was used. At the ball, the men skewered slices of the cake on spears and attempted to distribute the sweets to the ladies. In one slice of cake was a gold bean, and the fortunate recipient was then supposed to step forward. Well, you can imagine what a messy production it was. So the next year, the king of the krewe, the Lord of Misrule, made sure he knew which slice of cake contained the bean.
In modern king cakes, the bean was replaced around 1930 with a baby doll tucked inside the oval-shaped cinnamon dough brioche covered with icing and sugar in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold.
Today, more than 750,000 of these wonderful cakes are devoured in metro New Orleans alone, and at least another 75,000 are shipped nationwide to people who aren't lucky enough to be here during Carnival time.
Where does the name "Crescent City" come from?
It's a nickname that was acquired some time in the early 1800s, and it refers to the fact that New Orleans is situated on a sharp, crescent-shaped bend in the river.
Sometimes I like to imagine that when Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville was looking for a place to build a city in 1718, there was an enterprising real estate agent who saw him coming. "Look here," the agent said. "Have I got a deal for you!" Then he showed Bienville a lovely piece of land with view of the river. Bienville was so enchanted with the spot -- it was actually a bit higher than the surrounding area -- that he didn't even seem to notice the swamp that would have to be cleared, the potential for hurricanes and flooding, the heat and humidity, the alligators lurking about, and the mosquitoes so big you could put saddles on them. What the intrepid young man saw was location, location, location. In fact, it was the particular spot on the river that attracted him. He was quite taken with the dramatic bend in the river and its proximity to the nearby lake, which he named Pontchartrain. There was also a bayou that ran from the lake almost to the river. How convenient. And if that weren't enough, the spot for the city he planned would be ideal for keeping an eye on any traffic that might happen to come down the river. You just can't blame him for choosing this ideal spot surrounded by waters of river, lake, and swamps -- the French referred to it as the "Isle d'Orleans" -- for the new city he would call Nouvelle Orleans (New Orleans) in honor of Philippe II, Duc d'Orleans, the regent of France under French King Louis XV