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Where Y’Eat: For Subdued Mardi Gras King Cake Takes Bigger Role

King cakes have become a popular cultural icon in New Orleans, though some still look for the satisfaction of an old classic style.
Ian McNulty

King cake at Carnival time — it’s instinctual in New Orleans. And yet this year much is different. Parades are canceled and  many of the places where we find king cake have changed, from schools to offices. But the spirit of Carnival season persists in many other facets of local culture, and king cakes represent one edible, readily accessible example.

This one also has a social ritual built right in. How people adapt these in a time of social distancing could be an early barometer for a season that must proceed off its normal script.

As the start of this year’s Carnival approached, I heard many people vow that king cake would be one of their anchors of the season unmoored for so much else that we usually expect.

And on Twelfth Night, sure enough, those first official king cakes of the season were everywhere. Will it hold up in the weeks to follow, without big parties and parades? If the king cake doesn’t magically appear, but you have to decide to get one yourself, will you still be on the king cake everyday plan?

One thing is for sure: the vast realm of local businesses that make all those king cakes are watching closely. Many depend on the seasonal frenzy for the stuff to support their businesses the rest of the year. In a way, the king cake craze has helped underwrite the revival of the neighborhood bakery in New Orleans. If mere cravings and tradition don’t seal the deal, maybe consider your next cake case for civic duty and economic development.

This season, look for curbside king cake, more king cake delivery and more shipping nationwide. Look for New Orleans people to keep getting creative with how they celebrate Mardi Gras, and watch them work their favorite cakes right into the new format.

King cake will find a way. I’d bet my plastic baby on that.

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.

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