King Cake: A Taste of Moroccan Diversity

Checking out the FaceBook pages of friends in Louisiana, a state in the U.S. historically and culturally more French than English, we see that the Mardi Gras season has fired up right on schedule. Indeed, from this weekend through Fat Tuesday on February 28, Krewes will lead over 30 Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans alone, to say nothing of the scores and scores more through Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and elsewhere around the state. (Yes, we know that Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday in French, but we acknowledge that in the U.S. the Mardi Gras season stretches over nearly two months and culminates on Fat Tuesday.) We enjoy such things from across the combined distance of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico vicariously through the Internet. Digital imagery goes only so far, through, in satisfying our desire for deeper levels of engagement.

Hamdullah (“Praise be to God”), we live in a Muslim country that welcomes the free practice (but not proselytizing) of other religions. Among the various Christian denominations represented in Casablanca, we have several Catholic parishes from which to choose, including Eglise Christ Roi’s weekly English-language Mass celebrated in a strong accent by a French priest with a predominantly Filipino choir and Filipino parishioners crowded into a large room on the ground floor of a larger building. As close as we have come to planting in a home parish, though, is at the monolithic cement and stained glass Eglise Notre Dame de Lourdes, with its French-language Mass in which the clergy, choir, and over 90 percent of the parishioners hail from former French colonies in sub-Saharan Africa. Casablanca diversity and Catholic diversity intersect here, one manifestation of the tension with French influence that exists broadly in Moroccan culture – at once resenting the history of French domination that ended officially in 1956 with Morocco’s Independence, and perpetuating through cultural inertia its impact on things like bureaucracy, urban planning, education systems, and more.

Neither the French influence nor the diversity living here around us brings Mardi Gras parades to the streets of Casablanca. Nonetheless, we can enjoy more of the season than provided by vicarious digital imagery and a forehead of ashes on Ash Wednesday. Brian loves to make gumbo, having sold gallons of it from a food truck in Arizona and having catered a Bishop’s lunch for 300 with it at our parish in Scottsdale. Last Fall, the U.S. Consul General in Casablanca (a New Orleans native) told Brian that she asks for the Commissary in Rabat to stock andouille sausage around this time so that she can make jambalaya for Mardi Gras. Lo and behold, when we shopped at the Commissary last weekend we brought back several packs of andouille (as well as a generous supply of other port products!) so that Brian can make a good Mardi Gras chicken and andouille gumbo.

We discovered another piece of Mardi Gras culture available in King cakes. Back in Lafayette, Louisiana, you could find no better King cake than at Meche’s Donut King. Throughout the season leading up to Lent, Meche’s deep fries thousands of their gigantic cinnamon twist ovals stuffed with chocolate or cream cheese or Bavarian cream, glazed, painted with icing in vivid Mardi Gras colors of green (for faith), yellow (for power), and purple (for royalty), and finished with Mardi Gras beads. King cakes become ubiquitous at schools, offices, parties, and just around the house for weeks. The irony is that while King cakes have become a staple of Mardi Gras, they originated in France (brought to the U.S. in 1870) to celebrate Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night (on January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas), when the Three Wise Men arrived at the stable to pay homage to the baby Jesus as the King, and to offer him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Over time, the practice of hiding coins, nuts, or other gifts inside King cakes as gifts for people to find morphed into hiding a little plastic baby Jesus inside. Traditionally, whoever finds the baby Jesus in their piece shares the resulting good luck by bringing the next King cake. Epiphany kicks off both the Mardi Gras season (New Orleans’ has its first parade of the season on January 6), and the King Cake season.

So it was with great cultural interest and culinary excitement that in the week before Epiphany, we walked into the French bakery Amoud Patisserie & Boulangerie to procure our weekly bread and treats, and walked out with a King Cake. While Meche’s King cakes in Louisiana are basically humongous donuts, Amoud’s King cakes are like giant French pastries with flakey layers and custard-like fillings of almond, lemon, or other flavors. The variation of tradition did not end there, though. Amoud still called them King cakes, but in a concession to cultural sensitivity in a Muslim nation (and, presumably, wise marketing), rather than hiding a small baby Jesus inside, the Moroccan King cake actually had a small plastic Pokémon figure. Pokémon? Yes, Pokémon. It seems strangely fitting that, in this cosmopolitan city with people from around the globe living together in this Muslim nation, like Santa Claus becoming a sectarian face of Christmas in the U.S., a small plastic Japanese toy would get stuffed into a pastry celebrating Epiphany.

Following instructions, we warmed it in the oven for about 10 minutes, then devoured it warm and satisfying. Next weekend, just before the Fat Tuesday of Mardi Gras (again, we know: Fat Tuesday…Mardi Gras), we hope that Amoud sells King cakes again. In addition to wanting that French pastry goodness, Charlotte wants to get another Pokémon.

On your mark…get set…here we go!

Winter: The Growing Season

As January has rolled into February, we have enjoyed seeing postings on Facebook and elsewhere by stateside friends in snowy Winterlands. Having lived in Cleveland for a number of years, we have a fondness for the beauty of snowscapes, and enjoy their reminder in the posts. At the same time, these images bring to mind the Proem of Book II in De Rerum Natura, when Lucretius creates a scene to describe pleasure as the absence of pain:

‘Tis sweet, when, down the mighty main, the winds
Roll up its waste of waters from the land
To watch another’s laboring anguish far,
Not that we joyously delight that man
Should thus be smitten, but because ’tis sweet
To mark what evils we ourselves be spared.

In other words, looking upon these wintry scenes from afar, we think happily, “Such a pretty snowfall…How glad we are not to have to shovel it!”

Morocco has Winter cold and snow in the towns and villages of the Atlas Mountain band that stretches across the country from northeast to southwest and separates the Sahara from the Atlantic coast; not so in Casablanca. Casablanca’s Winter begins wet and muddy, when the rainy season comes and turns the dusty, packed ground to a slippery mess of clay. We arrived last summer to narrow hues of red and brown – bare land, dusty roads, concrete buildings. “Casablanca is not a beautiful city,” we heard often and came to understand quickly ourselves. “Its merit to Morocco comes as the financial and commercial center, not as a place of beauty.” Yet, we also heard that all the red dirt fields in which animals pawed at sparse dried-up plants in search of enough food to keep from starving, not to mention the bare dirt landscaping of our campus, would become lush with green grasses, tender succulents, and colorful wildflowers come Winter. It seemed too much transformation for which to hope; yet, over the last couple months, precisely that has happened. The Moroccan translation of “April showers bring May flowers” would read something like, “December and January rained to bring February colors uncontained.”

Agriculture drives Morocco’s economy, accounting for 40 percent of employment nationwide and significant exports of produce to Europe. Traveling north toward Tangier last Fall we saw countless farms growing melons of all kinds and colors (especially the honey-like yellow Moroccan melon), bananas, beans, potatoes, squash, cabbages, citrus, and more. In Casablanca, though, most of the farms around us either grew prickly pear cactus fruit (available for about 10 cents each from street vendors) or were empty fields without crops.

As still-hot Autumn made way for Winter’s cooler temperature and rains, we noticed a change in the farms. The farms seemed to wake up from their Summer/Fall hibernation as packed dirt got turned over (by hoes more often than by plows). By the time we headed stateside for Christmas with family we saw green sprouting in the dirt fields on the hillside leading up to our school: not much, but significant by comparison to the absence of anything but reddish brown beforehand. Each week as Winter has progressed, so has the greening of Casablanca. Crops of local artichokes, eggplants, cauliflower, broccoli, radishes, strawberries, and oranges flood the souks. Roadside vendors have shifted from pomegranates and onions to oranges and strawberries that they hock from truck beds and donkey carts. Fields of dirt have become pastures of tall grass and wildflowers. Cows and goats and sheep who struggled to find food in the Summer and Fall could not be happier as they eat their fill in Winter, for in Casablanca Winter is the growing season.

With the Earth coming alive, the draw to pull over to a roadside vendor as we drive around town is strong. Recently we could not resist while on the highway returning home from a day of errands. With Brian behind the wheel, Audrey said, “When we get to the guy with the donkey at the traffic circle where we turn left before we go up the hill, let’s stop to get some oranges.” [NOTE: After nearly seven months in Morocco, we have started giving directions by landmarks. Not only is that how people here give directions, they do so because that is the most effective way when street signs are rare and GPS is unreliable.] So we stopped when we wheeled around the traffic circle before we headed up the hill. The guy there with the donkey every day had company from several others with trucks and carts, everyone’s trucks and carts overflowing with orange and strawberries. In this environment of purest capitalism, as soon as we exited our vehicle we were hailed with a cacophony of “Monsieur!…Madame!” Before we could shuffle over to the guy with the donkey, a truck vendor ran up to us while cutting an orange into wedges and falling over himself to give us tastes of what he sold. Imagine the best citrus ever produced in Florida or California. Now imagine that by comparison it seems relatively tasteless and warehouse-ripened. With off-the-trees freshness and unmatched flavor and juiciness, Moroccan citrus is incomparable. Those delicious Moroccan clementines you find in Safeway and Albertsons? Yeah, they are ten times better here; and, instead of $5 for a small box we pay about $1 for twice that amount.

After they guy gave us wedges of orange dripping with juiciness, he headed to our car and gave more to Charlotte and her friend that was traveling with us. All in agreement: Sold! We grabbed a bag from the back of the CRV. Noticing that he also had strawberries that looked just as juicy on the berry spectrum, we grabbed another bag for some strawberries as well.

We moved too quickly without sufficient forethought. The bags we grabbed were not small. Vendors here are not restrained. As Brian turned over the bags and the guys began to pour oranges into the larger one, he said, “Wahed kilo” or “One kilo” (about two pounds) to keep the purchase reasonable. These guys do not operate according to limits beyond what they can fit into whatever vessel of portability you provide to them. Big bag equals lots of oranges…actually, lots and lots and lots of oranges. Twenty kilos, to be exact. Almost 45 pounsd. That is a lot of oranges. Oh, and while Brian failed miserably at controlling the procurement of oranges, Audrey busied herself with the guy’s partner getting strawberries as well, with the same applicable principle of purchase equaling bag size: in this case, a smaller large bag meant only five kilos (11 pounds) of strawberries. So how much does one pay for 45 pounds of the freshest and juiciest oranges and 11 pounds of the freshest and juiciest strawberries? In Casablanca you pay 100 Dirham, about $10. We love living in Morocco!

After getting home we schlepped our citrus up to our third floor apartment. What does one do with so much fruit? You eat it and you share it, reveling in the dual blessing of good food and good friends, both of which sustain you. Two weeks later, we have two oranges left, and need to make another roadside stop. This time, regardless of who else is there, we will make sure to buy from the guy with the donkey who is there every day.

On your mark…get set…here we go!