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 sell the galette des rois (Kings’ Cake) in different versions depending on the French regions.
Americans are more familiar with another Kings’ Cake, a Louisiana specialty.
Unlike the French who celebrate the end of the Christmas season with the Epiphany, the people of Louisiana celebrate the beginning of Lent with the famous New Orleans Carnival mid February. Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday is celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. During the Carnival, thousands of locals and out of state visitors savor the Kings’ Cake.
The galette des rois I know best, however, is made of puff pastry filled with almond paste.
Despite the diversity of the cakes, the tradition of hiding a small plastic or porcelain trinket inside the dough is the same. In France, family and friends gather pour tirer les rois or to draw the kings.
Traditionally the youngest person in the room hides under the table and decides who gets which slice of the cake. Then whoever finds the trinket is crowned king or queen and can pick his queen or her king. The following year this is the turn of the king or queen to host the party.
In the old days a dry bean or 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 trinket is still called fève.
When I was growing up, the fève had some kind of Christian connotation: a manger, a lamb, a star, a baby Jesus, an angel, or still a shepherd.
Nowadays the selection is more eclectic which explains why a museum in Blain, on the French Atlantic coast, and another one in Ronel, in the Midi- Pyrénées region, display them.
I love anything with almonds and almond paste, so I like the galette des rois very much. Yet more than the cake, this tradition reminds me that the French love the association of traditions, food, family, and friends.
I also enjoy sharing the traditions of my native country. One of my very first children’s stories happened to be about the galette des rois. Like Max, the protagonist, I was tempted more than once to cheat and steal the fève to be queen for a day.
Pelican Publishing Company, based in Louisiana, has published several children’s books around the Kings’ Cake and the New Orleans Carnival.
I like their most recent picture book (2008) Timothy Hubble and the King Cake Party written by Anita Prieto and illustrated by Virginia Howard.
Timothy has just moved to New Orleans and worries about this strange Kings’ cake “with a baby baked inside” that his new friend describes to him. Of course, things will turn around in a good way for him.
However, his initial reaction reminds me of the first time I introduced the French tradition to a California teacher.
This teacher taught at my oldest daughter’s preschool and she wanted her students to learn about their classmates’ cultural heritage. Parents were invited to share traditions from their native country. The teacher didn’t know about Epiphany Day, so she was happy for my participation. Until I told her that I would hide a small trinket inside the galette des rois.
“No, no, no”, she said. “You can’t do that. Imagine if one of the children swallowed this small thing.”
“Oh, it won’t happen,” I said. “I ate many Kings’ Cakes and I never saw anyone who swallowed it.”
“No,” she insisted. “Besides, some kids could be allergic to almonds. Can you bake another cake?”
I thought that the teacher overreacted. Yet I could only obey. So I came to school with a homemade pear cake. It had nothing to do with the galette des rois and no trinket was hidden inside, but we were safe. I explained the tradition to the children.
“Where is the small thing?” asked a little girl, digging with her plastic fork through her slice of cake.
Patiently the teacher explained that an object inside the cake would be too dangerous for children. The little girl nodded and asked if she could have more cake.
Years later I purchased my first store-bought galette des rois.
When I opened the box I saw a note taped inside the cover. A warning about the trinket/fève tucked inside the cake and the fact that it was baked with almonds was printed in bold. A description of the tradition followed in regular print.
I wasn’t surprised to find such a note and in retrospect agreed that the teacher had two valid points.
You see, after years in the States, what once shocked me has lost its strangeness.
Speaking of cake, can I ask you why the Americans say: “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too?”
Because I think that I have in fact the best of both worlds.