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!

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