Laissez les bon temps rouler, y’all! It’s Mardi Gras, which means a last-minute pre-Lenten extravaganza of flesh, fun, and other words starting with the sixth letter of the alphabet. In honor of the Carnival spirit of feasting (another “f” word!), I thought I’d take a brief look at one of the things I most associate with this holiday: cake.
Cake may not have the aesthetic magical impact of a cauldron bubbling over a fire or a bag full of bones scattered in the dirt, but this bakery standby (and some of its culinary cousins) manages to surface in a number of magical practices. Since this is Mardi Gras, let’s start with one of the most obvious, the King Cake. The King Cake originates in Epiphany and Old Christmas celebrations from Catholic countries, but has also become incredibly prominent in Carnival and Mardi Gras celebrations. The one you’re most likely to find in a local bakery (I have found Hispanic bakeries frequently are my best source) will be big, doughy cakes covered in icing and lots of colored sugar—usually gold, green, and purple. Somewhere inside, a small plastic or metal baby lurks, waiting to grant luck on the one fortunate enough to get a slice with the little token in it (or unfortunate enough, if you happen to bite into the baby and chip a tooth before you know what you’re doing). The lucky association of the baby in the King Cake resembles other traditions in which a bean is baked into a cake and the recipient receives blessings, money, or good luck upon finding it. Sometimes the “King” or “Queen” of the feast would be chosen by the finding of a bean or a pea:
Samuel Pepys (whose wife was French) recorded a party in London on Epiphany night, 6 January 1659/1660: “…to my cousin Stradwick, where, after a good supper, there being there my father, mothers, brothers, and sister, my cousin Scott and his wife, Mr. Drawwater and his wife, and her brother, Mr. Stradwick, we had a brave cake brought us, and in the choosing, Pall was Queen and Mr. Stradwick was King. After that my wife and I bid adieu and came home, it being still a great frost.” The choosing of King and Queen from the pie, usually by the inclusion of a bean and a pea, was a traditional English Twelfth Night festivity. (via Wikipedia’s article on “King Cake”)
Most Westerners know about the significance of candles on birthday cakes, as well as the wishing tradition that comes with blowing them all out at once. Some of the other quirky and semi-magical rituals we perform in conjunction with cake:
- “Portions of the wedding cake are often saved to eat at anniversary parties (and at christenings) to symbolize that the marriage has lasted and matured” (Brunvand 63).
- Brides are not supposed to bake their own wedding cakes, for fear of bad luck.
- A newly married couple frequently joins hands to cut the wedding cake and serve the first slice, which can symbolize their union and service to one another, their joint role in serving the community and their families (in some cases members of the family are served first by the bride and groom), or their shared prosperity and a wish that they should never know hunger together.
- “The wedding reception provides more folklore, mostly concerning the wedding cake. One popular belief says that if the bride cuts the cake first, with the groom placing his hand over hers, their marriage will be cooperative. This ritual also ensures fertility. Some traditions urge the couple to fast, while others insist that they eat their entire meal for good luck. Trinkets in the shape of rings, horseshoes, and cupids are often baked inside the cake” (Brunvand 1548).
- “Let a bride on her wedding-night throw a piece of wedding-cake outdoors and next morning watch how many birds eat the cake; the number of birds will be the number of her children” (Hyatt 54).
- “If a slice of the birthday cake tips over on the plate, that person will never marry” (Brunvand 170)
- Over-the-Hill celebrations frequently involve black or coffin-shaped cakes to symbolize (humorously, we hope) the ever approaching death of the recipient.
- Several cultures celebrate the Passover-and-Easter holidays with special cakes, including the Jewish use of unleavened cakes in Pesach meals, the Dutch use of Paas cakes in the Easter feast, fastnaacht cakes of the Pennsylvania Dutch, and other similar baked treats.
- Also from the Germanic tradition: “Years ago it was almost a general custom among Germans in Quincy to bake a coffee-cake and eat it with the family who had a new baby so that the child would become wealthy” (Hyatt 73).
- From the files of American History: “Although Election Day is not a legal holiday, the event nonetheless is associated with folk customs. For example, in New England, there is a tradition of preparing Election Day cake. This yeast-raised cake, prepared with spices, raisins, and nuts, dates back to the 1700s in Connecticut. It is tied to an era in which the trip to cast one’s vote was a journey punctuated with visits to friends and family. By the 19th century, polling places were more accessible, and the customs of Election Day cake and callers waned” (Watts 125).
Of course, Western culture hardly has a monopoly on cake-based traditions. Since we’re also entering the Chinese New Year, I can’t help but mention the delicious little mooncakes you can find in a number of Chinese bakeries at this time of year. In some cases, these sorts of little glutinous cakes might be offered to ancestors or deities (as with the tt’ok of Korean origin) or simply consumed as a symbol of prosperity and blessing during the celebrations.
According to American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, “Some American children enjoy baking a ‘thundercake’ when they first hear thunder and starting to eat it when the storm breaks (if the storm allows enough time for baking)” (Brunvand 1553). I’m not entirely sure what the significance of this weather-ritual might be, although I would speculate it brings some kind of protection or prosperity. Harry Hyatt recorded an interesting pregnancy divination based on a baking cake: “’ When I was young, whenever my bread or cake cracked open in the middle, I always was in a family way. It never failed.’ Some say the cracking open is not necessary; a raising-up more than usual in the center is sufficient” (Hyatt 54). A variation on this technique says if the cake breaks open during baking, a baby girl is not far behind.
Cakes also can have a darker (“devil’s food?”) side. Some cakes can be used to cause harm or to undo hurtful magic by sending it back to its origins. The famous “witchcake” made from urine and grains which Tituba allegedly showed the Parris girls how to make in Salem, MA, was supposed to have caused tremendous suffering to whomever was attempting to curse the young ladies. Another rather evil-sounding cake was allegedly used to poison a child: “One instance is given [in an account from 1895] of ‘toad heads, scorpion heads, hair, nine pins and needles baked in a cake and given to a child who became deathly sick’” (“Conjuring and Conjure-Doctors in the Southern United States,” Journal of American Folklore, p. 143). Gruesome.
Still, all in all, cakes tend more towards the “angel food” side of things, and bring luck, prosperity, and joy along with other blessings. After all, it is cake, right?
So enjoy your Mardi Gras celebrations with whatever baked sweetmeat you find most appealing. I will be having pancakes with FROG jam (Fig-Raspberry-Orange-Ginger, made by our local Amish country market and SO delicious!) and hopefully laissez-ing the bon temps rouler all day long! Here’s wishing you a wonderful day!
Thanks for reading,
- Brunvand, Jan. American Folklore: An Encyclopedia (1998).
- “Conjuring and Conjure-Doctors in the Southern United States,” Journal of American Folklore (1896).
- Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams Co., Illinois (1935, 1965).
- “King Cake.” Wikipedia (2013).
- Milne, Gerald C. Signs, Cures, & Witchery (2007).
- “Tituba.” Famous American Trials: Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692. Univ. of Missouri (Kansas City, 2012).
- Watts, Linda S.The Encyclopedia of American Folklore (2006).