Thursday, January 06, 2005

Carnival, et en français: Carnaval! with King Cakes

Today, January 6th, is epiphany, the first day of Carnaval! We are due a little break from the seriousness of the last few weeks here and Carnival is the perfect excuse.

In addition, with all the national attention visitation at Lafayette Pro Fiber by folks outside Acadiana has been very high. So that's an excuse to provide a little local color for our visitors as well.

Welcome all, Bienvenue!

Lafayette is not only the current epicenter of the local broadband battle but is also just a plain great place to live.

Folks are generally aware of the unique French, Acadian, and Creole communities of our area. And the German, Southern, American Indian, Vietnamese and Italian enclaves should not be overlooked. I know of no place with a richer gumbo of long-established, rural as well as urban, communities living side by side, participating in, and adopting each other's traditions. The famous (and not so famous) musical and culinary mixtures that characterize our region are widely appreciated.

But while we may brag on the joie de vivre that characterize our region, its hard for folks living away from here to get a sense of what that means--much less participate.

Carnival, Mardi Gras, has a host of joyful traditions but the one that is most conspicuous in the daily lives of South Louisiana is the omnipresence of King Cakes during the season. The bakeries turn out huge quantities of the ring of sweet dough and garish colored icing that are the only real constants of pastry. If you walk into an office for any reason during the day expect to see the traditional pot of coffee joined by a king cake, a plastic knife and a pile of little paper napkins. Parties throughout the season may also offer more sophisticated fare but a King Cake is de rigeur. There are even, traditionally, king cake parties--little semi-formal gatherings whose main excuse is the king cake and a little socializing. At those gatherings the big event is choosing who is to have the next party (and buy the next King Cake.) And that is accomplished by waiting for someone to find the "baby" embedded somewhere in the pastry. King Cakes used to come from the bakery with a little plastic baby hidden inside. Today lawsuit-consciousness has lead to packaging the little plastic baby in sanitary wrappings and forcing the customer to embed it in discretely in dough. Some particularly sensitive bakeries even offer 2 babies, in brown and pink, for their diverse patrons. We always use both. And the first to find a baby has to have the next party.

If you think I must be overemphasizing the importance of the King Cake be aware that our daily paper here ran, on this the first day of epiphany, a front page center story with a three column color photo and an interior sidebar entitled: Cakes King of Carnival Culinary Celebrations. Take a look; in it you will find discreet hints of the passionate debates over what a real King Cake is and what a good one should be. (And these are most definitely not the same argument.)

Parades and Carnival Balls are nice, no doubt, but don't confuse the MTV version of Carnival with the real thing.

If you want you can even get a real (or good) King Cake from an authentic Lafayette baker. But if you get one you have to use the baby.

All 337 numbers:
  • Anjo's Bakery, 1507 Kaliste Saloom, 989-1977.
  • Keller's Bakery, 1012 Jefferson St., 235-1568
  • Meche's Donut King, 306 E. Willow St., 232-3782, 205 Rue Louis XIV, 993-1058, 402 Guilbeau Rd., 981-4918.
  • Poupart's Bakery Inc., 1902 W. Pinhook Rd., 232-7921.
  • Southside Bakery Inc., 2801 Johnston St., 233-8636.
Local readers can weigh in with comments on which are best, or most authentic and why. I may be a bit of a firebrand about fiber. But I know what real conflict is and I am not going there. :-)

Lassiz le bon ton roulez!


ricky said...

Great post there, John. This is my favorite time of the year, and King Cake is only one of many reasons for that. Let me weigh in and award my "Best in Show" to Meche's glorious gigantic doughnut-style King Cake. I know it's not exactly traditional--which has led to quite the arguments in my family you can be sure--but I don't think there's anything quite so tasty as one of theirs with chocolate filling.

For more traditional fare, I'd go with the unfortunately named Poupart's (pronounced in these parts as "poo-parts" for those outside of the area). My sister assures me that the new grocery store Champagne's (not sure how they spell it) in the Oil Center has a particularly delicious and also traditional King Cake.

John said...

Hey Ricky,

While I happily consume large quantities of Meche's "King Cake" I have to put it in qoutes. It just doesn't have the tooth to make it fit in to my early experiences with King Cake.(Meche's _doughnuts_, now that's a different matter. Those are the acme of the doughnut world. I think they put vanilla in glazing sugar... Many a diet has foundered upon the mere existence of Meche's doughnuts.)

My family goes for Keller's. While pricey, and not really the most traditional they are a close-your-eyes-while-you-eat sorta good. (Nothing that taste so good can be truly traditional. Does anyone besides me remember the old days when King Cakes were often consumed as a dry mouthed duty of the season? The accompanying coffee was _necessary_. Modern King Cakes prove tradition can be improved upon.)

Anonymous said...

I think the best king cake in Lafayette is Crystal Weddings Bakery...It is a cake bakery that makes awsome moist king cakes to die for. Flapper