What is a king cake anyway?
It’s King Cake season, so naturally Broad Street is serving up their version of the bejeweled brioche classic. But don’t let the innocent, plastic baby fool you. All may not be so sweet with the history of this bejeweled pastry.
It’s true, the King Cake we serve in the states is a descendant of the French gateau des rois from France, served there to celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. The cake, itself, is designed to represent the crown of the three kings, who came upon the baby Jesus of the Bible. But as it turns out France borrowed this tradition from the Saturnalia festival of the Roman Empire, where a bean represented a fruitful harvest and a healthy year ahead. And if you know a bit about this pagan festival, the connection to our modern day Mardi Gras becomes a little more clear. Let’s just call it a necessary bit of excess and evil before the solemn days of Lent.
According to a podcast of Stuff You Missed In History Class, “Saturnalia was a Roman festival honoring Saturn, the god of sowing. It was “the best of days,” according to Catullus — everyone’s favorite holiday. And there ain’t no party like a Saturnalia party, because a Saturnalia party don’t stop. It lasted for seven days. There is mention by Lucian of the feasting of slaves and the clapping of frenzied hands, along with some nude singing. During the weeklong celebration, business, schools and courts were closed. Slaves wore their master’s clothing, party guests chose a Lord of Misrule and everyone put aside their formal togas for lighter garments.
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