9 Royally Interesting Facts About King Cake

iStock
iStock

It’s Carnival season, and that means bakeries throughout New Orleans are whipping up those colorful creations known as King Cakes. And while today it’s primarily associated with Big Easy revelry, the King Cake has a long and checkered history that reaches back through the centuries. Here are a few facts about its origins, its history in America, and how exactly that plastic baby got in there.

1. IT’S BELIEVED TO HAVE PAGAN ORIGINS.

The king cake is widely associated with the Christian festival of the Epiphany, which celebrates the three kings’ visit to the Christ child on January 6. Some historians, however, believe the cake dates back to Roman times, and specifically to the winter festival of Saturnalia. Bakers would put a fava bean—which back then was used for voting, and had spiritual significance—inside the cake, and whoever discovered it would be considered king for a day. Drinking and mayhem abounded. In the Middle Ages, Christian followers in France took up the ritual, replacing the fava bean with a porcelain replica engraved with a face.

2. IT STIRRED UP CONTROVERSY DURING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.

To bring the pastry into the Christian tradition, bakers got rid of the bean and replaced it with a crowned king’s head to symbolize the three kings who visited baby Jesus. Church officials approved of the change, though the issue became quite thorny in late 18th century France, when a disembodied king’s head was seen as provocation. In 1794, the mayor of Paris called on the “criminal patissiers” to end their “filthy orgies.” After they failed to comply, the mayor simply renamed the cake the “Gateau de Sans-Culottes,” after the lower-class sans-culottes revolutionaries.

3. IT DETERMINED THE EARLY KINGS AND QUEENS OF MARDI GRAS.


A Mardi Gras King in 1952.

Two of the oldest Mardi Gras krewes (NOLA-talk for "crew," or a group that hosts major Mardi Gras events, like parades or balls) brought about the current cake tradition. The Rex Organization gave the festival its colors (purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power) in 1872, but two years earlier, the Twelfth Night Revelers krewe brought out a King Cake with a gold bean hidden inside and served it up to the ladies in attendance. The finder was crowned queen of the ball. Other krewes adopted the practice as well, crowning the kings and queens by using a gold or silver bean. The practice soon expanded into households throughout New Orleans, where today the discovery of a coin, bean or baby trinket identifies the buyer of the next King Cake.

4. THE BABY TRINKETS WEREN'T ORIGINALLY INTENDED TO HAVE RELIGIOUS SIGNIFICANCE.

Although today many view the baby trinkets found inside king cakes to symbolize the Christ child, that wasn’t what Donald Entringer—the owner of the renowned McKenzie’s Bakery in New Orleans, which started the tradition—had in mind. Entringer was instead looking for something a little bit different to put in his king cakes, which had become wildly popular in the city by the mid-1900s. One story has it that Entringer found the original figurines in a French Quarter shop. Another, courtesy of New Orleans food historian Poppy Tooker (via NPR’s The Salt), states that a traveling salesman with a surplus of figurines stopped by the bakery and suggested the idea. "He had a big overrun on them, and so he said to Entringer, 'How about using these in a king cake,'" said Tooker.

5. BAKERIES ARE AFRAID OF GETTING SUED.

What to many is an offbeat tradition is, to others, a choking hazard. It’s unclear how many consumers have sued bakeries over the plastic babies and other trinkets baked inside king cakes, but apparently it’s enough that numerous bakeries have stopped including them altogether, or at least offer it on the side. Still, some bakeries remain unfazed—like Gambino’s, whose cinnamon-infused king cake comes with the warning, "1 plastic baby baked inside."

6. THE FRENCH VERSION COMES WITH A PAPER CROWN.


iStock

In France, where the flaky, less colorful (but still quite tasty) galette de rois predates its American counterpart by a few centuries, bakers often include a paper crown with their cake, just to make the “king for a day” feel extra special. The trinkets they put inside are also more varied and intricate, and include everything from cars to coins to religious figurines. Some bakeries even have their own lines of collectible trinkets.

7. THERE’S ALSO THE ROSCA DE REYES, THE BOLO REI AND THE DREIKÖNIGSKUCHEN.


"Roscón de Reyes" by Tamorlan - Self Made (Foto Propia).

Versions of the King Cake can be found throughout Europe and Latin America. The Spanish Rosca de Reyes and the Portugese Bolo Rei are usually topped with dried fruit and nuts, while the Swiss Dreikönigskuchen has balls of sweet dough surrounding the central cake. The Greek version, known as Vasilopita, resembles a coffee cake and is often served for breakfast.

8. IT’S NO LONGER JUST A NEW ORLEANS TRADITION.

From New York to California, bakeries are serving up King Cakes in the New Orleans fashion, as well as the traditional French style. On Long Island, Mara’s Homemade makes their tri-colored cakes year round, while in Los Angeles you can find a galette de rois (topped with a nifty crown, no less) at Maison Richard. There are also lots of bakeries that deliver throughout the country, many offering customizable fillings from cream cheese to chocolate to fruits and nuts.

9. THE NEW ORLEANS PELICANS HAVE A KING CAKE BABY MASCOT—AND IT IS TERRIFYING.

Every winter you can find this monstrosity at games, local supermarkets, and in your worst nightmares.

Everything You Need to Know About Activated Charcoal

iStock
iStock

Activated charcoal is everywhere. Touted in alternative health circles as a versatile treatment for almost anything that ails you, its proponents claim that it clears up your acne, treats inflammation caused by "toxic mold," draws out the venom from a snake bite, eases a hangover, halts your farts, removes "toxins" from your body, and brightens your pearly whites.

But there's little to no evidence for these claims. Though charcoal has a very long history as a folk remedy—ancient Egyptians used it as a treatment for "odorous vapors from putrefying wounds"—for the past century or so, its medical use has primarily been in emergency rooms to treat overdose and poisoning cases. In most cases there just aren't any clinical studies to test its efficacy for any other use. Not only that, but experts who spoke with Mental Floss caution that these treatments might come with added risks, too.

WHAT IS "ACTIVATED CHARCOAL"?

Activated charcoal isn't quite the same thing as the briquettes you use in your grill. Though they're both made of residue left from burning carbon-rich organic materials like wood, peat, or coconut shells, activated charcoal is oxygenated, which makes it far more porous. To activate the charcoal, manufacturers use steam or hot air to erode its internal surface [PDF], which increases the outside surface area along with its adsorption rate—the capacity to bind materials to a surface. Because of those adsorption abilities, charcoal has earned a reputation as a kind of bodily super-cleanser.

When you ingest activated charcoal, it works as a "gastrointestinal decontaminant," attracting various chemicals from your stomach and digestive tract, and then eliminating them from the body. That's why it's so helpful in cases of poisoning or drug overdose: It adsorbs the dangerous substance so it doesn't enter your bloodstream, then simply passes right on through—and out of—your system.

FROM E.R. TO GOOP

Activated charcoal had been popular in certain health food circles for years when, in late 2014, Gwyneth Paltrow's website Goop featured a "charcoal lemonade" sold by a Californian juice bar on a list of the best juice cleanses for "a good old-fashioned detox." Today, the substance can be found in everything from facial masks and odor-dampening comforters to a wide range of food and drink: Chefs are using activated charcoal to create pitch-black cakes, cocktails, pizza crust, and ice cream that's taking Instagram by storm.

The tiny bit of activated charcoal in the occasional cocktail probably won't do any damage—but it's not a good idea to take the substance on a regular basis, according to Rachele Pojednic, a professor of nutrition at Simmons College. "When you ingest it, you can't target what it's going to interact with," she says, "so if you’re on certain medications, you need to be really careful."

Some have never been on board with the stuff, including the FDA and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which recently started enforcing in restaurants a long-standing ban on activated charcoal. The agency—following FDA guidelines—considers it an "adulterated food."

IN CASE OF POISONING …

Aside from treatment for an overdose or poisoning, you don't need to take anything to "detox" your body: not a supplement, not a juice, not a soup. Nothing. That's what your liver is for.

"There's really no data to show that [activated charcoal] is going to do anything other than remove some pretty high-level ingested toxins" like the ones found in cases of poisoning or overdose, Pojednic says.

It's also dubious that activated charcoal can cure a hangover, as some alternative health practitioners recommend. "You feel a hangover because you're really dehydrated," she tells Mental Floss. "There's nothing in your system that needs to be extracted." While you might feel better after taking it, Pojednic says that's most likely because your hangover went away over time.

There are some risks associated with ingesting activated charcoal, too. Thanks to its adsorption abilities, charcoal can also take out all of the good chemicals in your system, including nutrients and the active ingredients in certain medications (like antidepressants) if taken around the same time.

BRUSH YOUR TEETH BLACK?

One of the most common products you'll find activated charcoal in is toothpaste; its advocates claim it whitens teeth. About a year ago, John Brooks, DDS, a dentist and researcher at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, found himself getting questions from clinicians and students wondering what to tell their patients about activated charcoal toothpaste. He and two other professors reviewed the scientific literature and found that there's little evidence to support the claims of charcoal toothpastes because they haven't been tested. Brooks tells Mental Floss, "None of these charcoal toothpastes have undergone the rigors of scientific testing."

And, again, there are potential risks. While it's possible these toothpastes could whiten your teeth in the short term, they're so highly abrasive that they're likely to remove the enamel from your teeth too, which means your teeth won't stay white for long. Brooks also worries about patients regularly swishing known carcinogens—like silica and bentonite clay, which some charcoal toothpastes contain—around in their mouths. Moreover, he says, charcoal could potentially interfere with beneficial toothpaste ingredients, like fluoride.

IN THEORY, IT COULD HELP YOUR SKIN

The one cosmetic benefit of activated charcoal might be found in skincare products—maybe. As chemist Michelle Wong writes, "There isn't any good data on whether or not it works, but theoretically, it could work." It's possible activated charcoal's adsorption abilities could reach into your pores, pulling out the dirt and oils that get trapped there. But these products have not been rigorously tested, so we can't be certain about their efficacy. Wong also points out that activated charcoal typically takes several hours to have an effect, whereas most charcoal skincare products are applied for mere minutes.

The activated charcoal trend seems to be holding strong, despite the lack of evidence for its health claims. So eat that pitch-black ice cream every once in a while if you like, but don't count on it to improve your health.

Does Washing Your Fruits and Vegetables Really Do Anything?

iStock
iStock

Washing produce is one of those habits that some people follow religiously and others shrug off altogether. If you're someone who struggles to find the motivation to cook in the first place, you might fall into the latter group. But cleaning your fruits and vegetables at home isn't just an outdated precaution: As Popular Mechanics reports, a thorough rinse could mean the difference between a meal that nourishes you and one that leaves you sick.

Produce is one common carrier of norovirus—a foodborne viral infection that triggers such symptoms as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. There's no way to know whether your lettuce is contaminated with harmful bacteria before it hits your plate, but cleaning it with plain tap water does make it safer to eat. According to USA Today, rinsing produce is effective enough to remove 90 percent of the pathogens left on it by the growing, harvesting, and shipping process. Rinsing is also a good way to remove any of the visible matter you don't want eat, such as grit and soil.

Cleaning your fruits and vegetables is definitely an improvement over eating them straight from your crisper drawer, but be warned that this isn't a foolproof way to avoid food poisoning. Water won't remove all the microbes living on the surface of your food, and even an extremely thorough rinse isn't enough to make produce contaminated with potentially deadly bacteria like E. coli safe to eat. But that doesn't mean the risk outweighs the benefits of including produce in your diet.

If you have a pile of veggies that need to be prepared for dinner, the best way to make them safer for consumption is to rinse them under cold water and rub them in a bowl of water, starting with the cleanest items and progressing to the produce that's more soiled. Give all the food a final rinse before moving it to the cutting board. Peeling the outside of your produce and cooking it when possible is another effective way to kill or remove stubborn bacteria.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios