At the beginning of this New Year, I sigh. As I have since I left my native France.
When the holiday season is only a memory here, the fête is not over there.
Traditionally a religious celebration commemorating the visit of the Three Wise Men to baby Jesus, Epiphany Day is thoroughly enjoyed in France beyond the official January 6th and beyond religious meaning, too.
All over the country, bakeries and pastry shops offer the galette des rois (Kings’ Cake) in different versions depending on the French regions.
Since I have lived only in Normandy and Paris, the Kings’ Cake I ate was made of puff pastry filled with almond paste.
Despite their diversity the tradition of hiding a small porcelain trinket inside the cake is the same.
Whoever finds the small decorative object in his or her slice of cake is crowned king or queen and can pick a partner. The following year this is the turn of the king or queen to host the party.
In the old days a dry bean called fève in French was hidden inside the cake. One said that cheap people swallowed the bean so they wouldn’t have to host the event the following year. And this is how tiny porcelain trinkets replaced the traditional beans. Who knowns? In any case the trinkets are still called fèves.
When I was growing up, the fèves had a Christian connotation: a manger, a lamb, a star, a baby Jesus, an angel, or still a shepherd.
Although most contemporary fèves are Made in China, some bakers go the extra mile and hide meaningful, real porcelain fèves.
I used to bake – with mixed results – a Kings’ Cake for my family but for the last few years I buy it at a local French bakery, and everyone is grateful for the opportunity. Don’t believe anyone who pretends that every French woman knows how to bake every possible cake.
If you get a chance, try the French Kings’ Cake at least once. It’s delicious, but moreover this tradition reminds us that the French know how to create a festive event around any kind of food.
Indeed, the gathering of friends and family around a table matters as much to the French than the food itself.
Adam Gopnik – a genuine and renowned Francophile – wrote a book on the topic. Although The Table Comes First is not my favorite book written by Gopnik, his research about the social and cultural impact of food is extensive and you’ll learn interesting facts about the French and their unique relationship with food.
I also enjoy sharing the traditions of my native country and one of my very first children’s stories happened to be about the Kings’ Cake.
I love how Elena Selivanova illustrated King for a Day and how Spider magazine included funny footnotes.
In homage to one of my favorite childhood traditions I add my own little trinket to this post.
When my oldest daughter started a morning preschool program her teacher told me that she wanted her students to learn about their classmates’ cultural heritage. Parents were invited to share a tradition from their native country. I chose the Epiphany Day. The teacher who knew nothing about this tradition was very happy. Until I told her that I would hide a small porcelain trinket inside the Kings’ Cake.
“No, no”, she said, shaking vehemently her head, “you can’t do that.”
“Imagine if one of the children swallowed this small thing.”
“Oh, it won’t happen. I ate many Kings’ Cakes and I never saw anyone who swallowed it.”
“No,” she insisted. “We’ll skip that part.”
That part was the fun part. But I could only obey. So I came to school with a homemade pear cake that had absolutely nothing to do with the Kings’ Cake. But it was healthy and safe. I told the children about the tradition and sliced the cake.
“Where is the little thing?” asked a little girl, digging with her plastic fork through her slice of cake.
Patiently the teacher explained that it would be too dangerous for children and the little girl asked if she could have more cake.
Years later, I got my first store-bought Kings’ Cake.
When I opened the box I saw a note taped on the cover. A warning about the trinket tucked inside the cake was printed in bold. A description of the tradition followed in regular print.
By then, I wasn’t really surprised to find the note.
Fast-forward many years and I agree that the teacher had a point. Nowadays, I wouldn’t be able to bring any homemade cake to school, anyway.
You see, after years in the States, I am at home. What once surprised me has lost its strangeness.
But speaking of cake, I want you to know that there is something I still don’t understand. Why do the Americans say “You can’t eat your cake and have it?”
Because I think that I have in fact the best of both worlds.