NEW ORLEANS | New Orleans is a city strong on traditions, and few inspire as much passion as the king cakes of Mardi Gras season. Do you eat Haydel’s, Gambino’s or Randazzo’s? Fillings and toppings or old-school simplicity? Do you nibble before the Jan. 6 start to the season, or is that sacrilegious?
To see folks’ devotion for the ring-shaped confection, look no further than an early morning at Manny Randazzo King Cakes in suburban Metairie. Despite frigid weather and rain, the line began forming a half-hour before the 6:30 a.m. opening on Jan. 6.
“To me, it’s the best in the city,” said Drew Boston, 23. “It just depends on what you like. What kind of cake you want, what kind of icing you want, what kind of toppings you want.” Boston takes the cakes to his mother in Baton Rouge on the weekends — she’s loyal to the Randazzo brand.
Until Mardi Gras ends Feb. 28, king cakes are everywhere. People bring them to the office. Lawyers ship them to clients. Families eat them watching the parades. Neighborhood bars serve them — nothing goes better with beer than dough, cinnamon and frosting.
Rules are a big part of the king cake tradition — but for every one, there’s probably an exception. Among the traditions: Jan. 6 kicks off the season because it commemorates the day the three kings visited baby Jesus, and it marks the start of Carnival season. The cakes usually disappear after Fat Tuesday. And inside, there’s a favor — most often a tiny plastic baby. The person who gets it is supposed to buy the next king cake. The cakes are generally colored with the New Orleans Mardi Gras tri-color of purple, green and gold.
King cakes can be found as “rosca de reyes” in many Spanish-speaking countries and “galette de rois” in France. Still, few places take the tradition as seriously as New Orleans, where everyone seems to be wiping the signature colored sugar from their mouths. Here, it’s not just eating king cake that’s important; it’s the kind of king cake you pick. Everyone has a favorite, from locals to natives who’ve long moved away. They wax poetically about Haydel’s frosting, McKenzie’s simplicity or Cake Cafe’s bold apple goat cheese.
Todd Duvio’s family moved away years ago but hand carried four king cakes on the return flight to California after Christmas. “My household is very split on king cakes,” he said. “One of my sons is strictly Manny Randazzo’s, and he will not eat anything else. … My wife likes Haydel’s.”
Many bakery preferences have been around for decades. Jackie-Sue Scelfo, a Gambino’s Bakery spokeswoman, says it’s often based on what people were brought up on, what Mom and Grandma ate.
“The people from here, I find they are very loyal — whether it’s their bakery or their bank,” she said.
McKenzie’s, a longtime New Orleans bakery chain, inspired that kind of loyalty with a fairly simple king cake with no fillings, brushed with simple syrup and sprinkled with colored sugar. The cake is so popular it sort of came back from the dead: McKenzie’s went out of business, but bakery chain Tastee Corp. bought the recipes. Tastee started selling the old-school McKenzie king cake around 2003 or 2004.
“People were coming from all over: ‘Is it true? Is it true?'” said David Simoneaux, president of Tastee. “I think it is just the simplicity of it. I think it just brings back a lot of memories.”
Still, new bakeries and king cakes gain devotees every day. And people who are new to New Orleans feel passionately, too. Maggie Scales, executive pastry chef for the Donald Link Restaurant Group, moved to the city six years ago, knowing nothing of king cakes or the rush surrounding them. Now she oversees a pastry empire that includes traditional French-style king cake (two layers of puff pastry with almond cream in the middle and none of that American colored sugar), a more New Orleans-style king cake in an oval shape, and the Elvis king cake which is as decadent as the king himself. She’s even experimented with a peanut butter and jelly king cake.
But for her and many others in New Orleans, you don’t experiment with one king tradition: timing.
“Jan. 6. That’s when you can officially have your first slice of king cake, and it’s a huge day,” she says. “People have been asking since the beginning of December, and I have held true to Jan. 6.”