Sunday, January 9, 2011

King Cake and Babies

“If Madame S. ever tries to feed you something, check first to make sure there’s not an infant inside.”  

-a line from Simon’s letter to the following year’s French class after my first year of teaching

The first time I made a King Cake, I used a box mix from New Orleans that my sister sent me with a little post-it exclaiming, “For your class!”  

"Oh GOODY,"  I thought,  until I opened it and realized this was not the three-step, two-ingredient, twenty-minute investment I’d learned to expect from boxed deserts.  

For one thing, it included a little packet of YEAST.  “Where,” I wondered, “is the logic in a product that assumes you lack the time to mix together sugar and flour but that you’d be happy to loiter around the kitchen for three hours while your dough rises twice?”  But Louisiana has its own logic, I’m learning, the first tenet of which is that nothing, not even a box mix of cake, can be rushed. 

So what is a King Cake?  They’re consumed all over Europe in various permutations, but I’ll focus on the Louisiana kind.  A Pelican State King Cake is a donut-shaped pastry, usually filled with cinnamon, cream cheese and fruit, or praline and topped with glaze and glittery sprinkles in the green, gold, and purple shades of Mardi Gras.  King Cakes are historically associated with Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, which falls on January 6th and is, according to Catholic tradition, the day that the three wise men (or three kings) first saw Jesus.   In Louisiana, you can find them as early as New Year’s and consume them until Lent begins and its time to fast all of that frosting out of your system.

Each cake comes with a shiny gold crown and a miniature plastic baby (said to represent Christ).  Sometimes a string of beads rattles in the box alongside the other favors.  In New Orleans, the baker hides the baby, but in the more choking-hazard conscious city of Baton Rouge, where I live, the baby sits atop the cake, or (when placed by a more irreverent baker) finds himself face-down in glaze.  The person who has the baby in his or her piece of cake claims the crown along with the responsibility for providing the next cake.

Back in North Carolina, circa 2004 . . . After reading the directions, I was beginning to wonder if it would have been easier to make the kind of King Cake I’d had in France, with phyllo dough and frangipane, instead of trying to concoct an O-shaped cinnamon roll with tri-color toppings. 

Luckily, Kathryn helped me.  Kathryn was the seven year-old who adopted me that year.  After school, she’d wait by the window until she saw my red car pull into the low-rent apartments where we both lived.  Then, she’d run out, barefoot in every weather, long red tangled hair flying behind her, shouting “Tahwah, Tahwah!!”  She’d throw her tiny arms around my waist and say as she stared up at me, “What do you want to do today?”  She looked and sounded so much like my own sister had at that age.  

“Do you want to help me make a cake for my class?”  She bobbed her head yes.  “Good.”

I was rifling through the cabinets for a bowl for the dry ingredients, when Kathryn called me out.  Again. 

This sort of thing happened all the time.  I’d be going about my life as a twenty-five-year-old trailed by a very small sidekick when Kathryn would point out my corruptive influence.  The first time it happened was the day I moved in.  After making several trips up the stairs with Kathryn and her friend Rachel cheerily carrying child-sized armfuls of books and CDs, I noticed that I’d made at least one trip up without them. 

“Kathryn?  Rachel?”

I found them standing transfixed before a large Matisse print I’d carried up a few minutes before and propped against the wall: La Joie de Vivre.  It’s a tangerine and cotton candy colored landscape of nudes lounging, sunning themselves, and swirling through what looks like a grown-up game of ring around the rosie.   Other figures play the flute, nap, kiss, and stroll. 

Kathryn sighed gravely, disappointed to learn that she’d be sharing a residence with the kind of pervert who had the gall to display such pornographic material in her home.

“Looks to me like they’re BUTT NAKED!” 

"Yeah," echoed Rachel solemnly, “Just running around in their yard BUTT naked.” 

I didn’t like the puritanical tone of their art assessment but wasn’t sure how to respond knowing they’d probably parrot back to their parents any Our Bodies, Ourselves “no shame in naked” style explanation I might offer.

“Well, they’re probably hot from all that dancing and flute playing.”

“Where ARE they?” questioned Rachel who clearly doubted that such loose-moraled frolicking could take place in any yard she knew of.

I shrugged. “France?”

They both seemed relieved. 

This time, Kathryn was concerned about what she glimpsed in my cabinets.  “Those are wine cups, aren’t they,” Kathryn accused pointing up to the turquoise and lime green plastic goblets on the top shelf.

“Wine GLASSES,” I mentally corrected her, then realized she was exactly right.  Wine glasses were, by definition, made of a material that didn’t bounce when dropped on the kitchen floor.  So, not only was she reproaching me for all the villainy that drinking connoted in a seven-year-old’s mind, but also pointing out that I consumed adult beverages from a container one step up from a sippy cup.

Unwilling to suffer the judgment of a second grader or to lie about whether I did or did not have a bottle of wine befitting the quality of said wine cups in the refrigerator at that very moment, I responded: “Wine’s not the only thing you can put in them.”

“Ohhhh!!!” Kathryn shrieked. 

Maybe the alcohol didn't bother Kathryn.  Maybe it was more that seeing the wine cups called her attention to the fact that we weren’t the same age.  That at some point, perhaps after her bedtime, I led another life in which my non-elementary school friends and I sat around sipping forbidden substances out of wine cups and conversing about mortgages and books above her reading level.

“Can we put chocolate milk in them?” 


“What else!?”

I paused, allowing her to imagine the possibilities.


She clapped.

After that, every time Kathryn ate anything at my house, she wanted it out of the wine cups.  And now that she knew about King Cakes, she requested a prize inside.  She’d close her eyes while I hid trinkets and jewelry castoffs in goblets of popcorn or underneath scoops of Neapolitan.

One day, her mother asked me to babysit, while she visited her own mother in the hospital.  “The ICU had limited visiting hours, just half an hour, really” she said, “and this is the only day I can get a ride.”

So, Kathryn and I settled in to watch an animated version of Frosty the Snowman we’d checked out from the library.  “I don’t know if we’ll have time to finish it before your mom gets back.”

“It’s okay,” said Kathryn, “I’ve already seen it a bunch.” 

I woke up with a start and saw the time blinking on the VCR: 1:30 A.M.  Kathryn was asleep on the other couch.  Where the hell was her mom?  She’d left for the hospital before dinnertime.  I checked my phone.  Nothing.  Walked downstairs and tapped tentatively on their apartment door.  No answer.   Searched for a note on my door. 

When I found no sign of communication, I went back inside, locked the door, turned off the TV, and draped a blanket over Kathryn.  Maybe we’d been sleeping when her mom came by.  Still . . . Oh well, nothing more to do now.

The next morning, Kathryn and I made pancakes, walked downtown, and browsed at the library.  I kept thinking, “What if her mom doesn’t come back?”  Uncharacteristically, Kathryn didn’t ask any questions, which made me wonder if something like this had happened before. 

I realized I didn’t even have a phone number for her mother.  Could I adopt Kathryn?  Did she have any other relatives?  I could probably make a bedroom for her in the den.  All of the hard stuff, diapers and toilet training and learning to walk and talk had been taken care of.  Besides, she bypassed most of my past roommates in maturity.

“That your baby?” someone asked as Kathryn pored over the Amelia Bedelia collection in the children’s section. 

“I’m just watching her for her mom.” 

“You two look alike.”

After having a milkshake and hamburger for lunch, we walked back up to the apartments.  Kathryn’s mother waited at the top of the hill.  “Baby!” she screamed.  Kathryn took off running, “Mama, Mama!” 

“I missed you, baby.  Mama got locked out of the house.”  Her eyes never met mine.  “Got locked out of the house and couldn’t get back in till now.”

“Well,” I said, relieved and a little sad, “I think your baby missed you, too.”

Monday, January 3, 2011

Southern Snow

“Here’s what I call snow.”

My grandmother, Tee Tee, is speaking.  We’re on our second glass of Chattanooga Blush, a variety of wine I love as much for its Kool-Aid shade of pink and muscadine magic as for the Biblical chiding on the front of the bottle, which references Ephesians 5:18: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.  Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” (NIV)

Well, we're filled with spirits at least . . .

She continues, “You can’t get to work and you can’t get to school, but you CAN get to the mall and the restaurant.  That’s what I call snow.” 

The meteorologists had speculated that our Christmas would be more white than warm, which means that we’ll celebrate any brrr-inducing blanketing of the ground by primarily protecting ourselves from foreign flakes.  A mad rush to the grocery store for hot chocolate.  Some kerosene for the heater.  A snowscape admired first though a pane then up-close for as long as we can endure.  (Before we realize that our boots aren’t designed for trudging through the drifts, that our cotton socks prove too thin for below freezing.)  

The one time I'd been caught off guard by the snow in Chapel Hill in 2003, my boyfriend and I had driven from hardware to grocery store for an hour after a cross-town power outage left us shivering in our little one-bedroom, sure that spooning was no match for temperatures in the teens.  Our search for firewood eventually led us to a man named Leon who took our 20 bucks in exchange for a bundle of wet timber.  We supplemented it with two armfuls of stolen newspapers and spent the next several hours building the most futile of fires, one that left the rug soot-stained and and made us wonder if we were on the verge of carbon monoxide poisoning.  Finally, he said, "Let's just drive to your parents' house, honey.  Neither one of us was made for this sort of battle with the elements."

Usually, southern snow is a ground dusting as light and unlasting as confectioner’s sugar on a waffle.  Northern snow, in my imaginings, might be more like the copious covering on the Louisiana brand of beignets: heaps of powdered piles at first delighted in, then eventually shoveled to the side once they’ve overstayed their usefulness.  Once you’ve had your fill and then some. 

I remember the first time I had beignets in Baton Rouge.  Two friends and I stopped into Coffee Call, a local diner-style beignet joint after an Abita pub crawl.  By the end of our witching-hour snack, I looked as if I’d weathered a bakery blizzard, with snowy sugar on my eyelashes, flecks around my mouth, white spots dotting my top.  Both of them, in black, managed to stay impeccable. 

“But how….?” I began.
“We grew up here.”

What must it feel like to grow up in a place where snow isn’t limited to special occasions, where it’s a chilly given of winter?  I’ve read that director Tim Burton thought of snow as magical because he never saw it in his native California.  One of my favorite movie scenes is his, when Edward Scissorhands carves an ice sculpture as Wynona Ryder’s character swirls beneath it, savoring a snow unknown to her.

This year we had a white Christmas, just like the ones I (didn’t) used to know.