If you’ve never lived in the South, you might not be familiar with King Cakes. The brightly colored yellow-green-and-purple treats start popping up in the weeks before Mardi Gras. Though most prevalent in New Orleans, they are popular throughout the South. They’re delicious, they’re often shared at offices and parties– and yes, it’s Catholic in origin.
The name “King Cake” refers to the three kings, or three wise men. It emerged as a treat associated with pre-Lent celebrations, connected closely to Easter. Sometimes, there’s even a little plastic baby hidden somewhere in the cake – representing that same baby the wise men went to visit.
So it’s understandable that a friend recently asked me: “Um… is it weird for Jewish people to buy King Cakes?”
When asked this question, I resisted the urge to laugh it off and instead did a little reflecting (while munching on a delicious cinnamon-swirl piece of this tasty treat). Does the symbolism behind a food mean it’s proprietary to a certain group? Putting aside logistics that would obviously factor in for some observant folks, such as the laws of kashrut or halal – should foods be avoided simply because they’re associated with someone else’s tradition?
I recalled a few years ago, when a local bakery in Jackson, Mississippi, began promoting their all-new seasonal specialty: Purim baked goods. Yes! Fresh-baked, made-to-order sweet hamentaschen in multiple flavors — and savory bourekas, too. I was beyond excited that my favorite local bakery was offering Jewish treats, and so were my Jewish friends… and so were my non-Jewish friends. We all went out and bought those Purim treats in droves. (And thank goodness – if only the small Jewish community of Jackson had shown up to buy the baked goods, that wouldn’t have been very marketable.)
But one person did ask me: “Um, is it okay for a non-Jewish person to eat those triangle Purim-cookies?”
I assured them, without hesitation, that they were welcome to a cookie.
The question is not ludicrous. Eating is sometimes related to a statement of faith, whether it’s by following rules as to what we do and do not eat, or accepting a communion wafer at a Catholic mass.
But there is a difference between foods with ritual meaning and foods with cultural symbolism. Eating hamentaschen doesn’t make you Jewish, but it does give you an opportunity to learn a delicious tidbit about Purim and the story of Esther. Sharing a King Cake with co-workers is a delicious opportunity to enjoy Mardi Gras and share in a communal celebration. It’s a sharing of cuisine that has become a low-barrier sharing of culture.
In fact, I think the story of Esther itself makes the case for sharing in the culture around us. Esther was a nice Jewish girl who managed to save her entire Jewish community, not by avoiding the culture around her– but by fully immersing in it. She married the king, held on to her identity, and stopped Haman. Let’s remember she also did this over an extended dinner party, and now we recall Haman’s defeat by eating cookies shaped like his hat and named for his ears. (Creepy.)
Lots of special-foods have stories unique to one culture or another. Learning about them is fascinating, and feasting on them is even better.
In other words, let all of us eat (king) cake. And yes, I promise, in a few more weeks… I’ll share my triangle Purim-cookies.
The parades of Mardi Gras are a communal event. It isn’t unusual for folks to begin gathering in their favorite spot a couple of hours before the parades begin. There are two highly identifiable sides that one stands on: the neutral ground side (otherwise known as the median) and the sidewalk side. Each swells with people as the natural socialization begins and it is a sweet time for everyone.
It doesn’t matter who you are, what color or religion you are, what you drive or what you do for a living, or where you went to school, or any of the normal social barriers that keep us apart. We are all there for the same joyous reason, to celebrate and enjoy.
It is near impossible to talk on a cell phone and hear because of the noise. The internet is painfully slow, with thousands of people in a small, dense area. And anyway, if you look down to text, you are going to miss something. So, miracle of miracles – most of us put it all away and live in that moment, which is a rare privilege these days!
I could say that the “sacred time” notion, away from phones and fully present, is enough of a Jewish moment at Mardi Gras. But there’s so much more. In fact, Mardi Gras makes me think each year of my favorite Torah portion, Nitzavim, and these words in particular:
“ You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer — to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day….”
I imagine each year, that this is the closest that I will get to feeling that kind of diversity, all standing together for a common gift! No, the gift itself isn’t as formally holy as the gift in Nitzavim. Of course not. But what could be more holy than brothers and sisters standing together as equals in peace, love and joy?
By the way, yes, we all know that the roots of Mardi Gras are Catholic, with this celebration emerging as the last hurrah after Lent before the Easter holiday. But culturally, as a New Orleanian, I know well that contemporary Mardi Gras celebrations are truly for everyone to enjoy. Did you know that the first King of Rex (King of Mardi Gras), Louis Soloman, was Jewish? And that there’s a full-blown Jewish Mardi Gras Krewe?
So maybe your Mardi Gras experience could be a bit more Jewish than you think. Mine certainly is, year after year.
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