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Why Do You Eat King Cake on Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras is next week, and you know what that means: festivities of all kinds, from the religious to the ... not so religious. Among the many popular traditions associated with the Catholic holiday — costumes, parades, bright colors — one stands out as easily the tastiest: king cake. Not everyone wearing green, gold, and purple in New Orleans next week will know why the treat is associated with Fat Tuesday, but the story behind it is as interesting as the cake is delicious.

It's said to have begun, like so many delectable customs, in 19th-century France. The confection is named in honor of the biblical Kings and has as much to do with the Epiphany — also known as the Twelfth Night, which traditionally takes place on January 6 — as it does with Mardi Gras itself. That's when the three wisemen (also known as both the Magi and the three kings) first saw the Christ Child — in Greek, "epiphany" means "to show." Here's where the cake comes in: Decorated in green (for faith), purple (for justice), and gold (for power), its colors are meant to resemble a crown honoring the Magi.

What's up with the baby?

Homemade king cake on a wooden board
Credit: Brent Hofacker/ Shutterstock

The variant known and loved in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast more generally has a trinket hidden inside, called a fève, most often shaped like a baby (symbolizing, you guessed it, baby Jesus). It's usually porcelain or plastic, but fava beans have also been used. Being lucky enough to find the fève comes with both good fortune and responsibility: The person who comes across it is often dubbed that night's king or queen but is also tasked with acquiring the following year's cake or even putting on the entire party.

As for Mardi Gras itself, the date isn't the same from one year to the next. It always takes place the day before Ash Wednesday, of course, which places it exactly 46 days before Easter. The connection between the name "Fat Tuesday" and the beginning of Lent is fairly clear: It's the last day to eat rich, fatty foods — like a colorful cake — before many Christians fast for 40 days and 40 nights in addition to entirely abstaining from something like sweets, alcohol, or a certain behavior.

Whether your devotion runs that deep or not, however, there's no time like the present to sample this unique delicacy — and, what's more, impress everyone at your Mardi Gras festivities with the story behind it.

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