In writing Come to the X (forthcoming, Galileo Press, 2020), I was struck by the way what I eat over the last decade has changed, and how my patterns of eating and relationship to food reflected the events in my life.
In Finding My Distance(Galileo Press, 2009), elaborate dinners and their preparation were like a reward. From lamb to shrimp, exotic pastas to salads, mountains of crabs and all the fixin’s — caesar potato salad and Asian cole slaw — to rich desserts like ice cream and homemade chocolate sauce, crisps and mousses and souffles. The long work days always ended with focus on cocktail hour and dinner, prepared and eaten with relish by this family of four, including two kids who were introduced as toddlers to an adult palate — whatever we ate got whizzed in a blender — a husband who is a stress eater, as well as myself, who has a history of anorexia. Whatever the complex motivations, and whatever stressful life events vying for our attention, sharing dinner and sitting down together as a family were key.
We head to Annapolis to meet my Aunt Kay for dinner at Cantler’s Riverside Inn, where we introduce her to a slice of Maryland she’s not partaken of before: platters of crabs brought steaming to our table. Barrett shows her how to crack open and hammer and peel, and before we know it, several mountains of spent legs and shells litter our brown-papered table, along with empty plastic containers of cole slaw and straggler fries and rings. Crab parts go flying, Aunt Kay busily wipes her white shirt, the clientele whoop it up at the tables and bar behind us, dusk starts to fall, and the Magothy River starts to sparkle behind us. We order another round of beers, another half-dozen crabs, and more slaw. After we’ve consumed our very last crab, we still have room for more and order key lime pies all around. Our server doesn’t even bother to clear away the mess before bringing out dessert, and now we’ve got a Vesuvius on our table.
“I’ve never seen you eat with such gusto, Julia,” Aunt Kay says.
“You’ve never seen me eat crabs before,” I reply. She’s amazed by the mess.
Finding My Distance, in contrast to Come to the X, is a book filled with hope and purpose; it is largely about my determination as a middle-aged equestrian athlete to climb the levels in three-day eventing. It is also about the challenges of being the mother of two young adults. Food, and specifically dinner preparation and its sharing with family, complement the inner weather of the book. After attending the Preakness Race:
My day ends well with Barrett’s shrimp pad thai and lots of Anapamu, and reruns of our eventing and racing videos. There goes Foolish Groom from the back of a twelve-horse pack, picking off his contenders in the last quarter mile, winning again by a good 10 lengths.
As a New Orleans native, I enjoy sharing my culture with others, especially our food and traditions. When I wrote THE KING CAKE BABY, a story about eating King Cake throughout the Carnival season, I wanted to share a taste of Louisiana with kids. That tradition has a sweet spot in my heart.
Carnival has been celebrated for hundreds of years in Louisiana and historians have traced the custom that became the modern King Cake to the pre-Christian ancient Roman rituals. During the winter solstice Saturnalia festival ordinary citizens joined in the celebration to give thanks to Saturnus, the god of sowing or seed. Partying, feasting, merrymaking, role-reversals, and making mischief were all part of the festivities. And yes, there was cake!
A fava bean was hidden in that cake and the person who found it in their piece became ruler of the day or the “Lord of Misrule.” It’s believed the festival allowed those among the lowest levels of society temporary relief from societal pressures imposed by the ruling class.
During the Middle Ages Europeans continued to celebrate the return of the sun during the winter solstice and worshipped numerous non-Christian gods. Although the church prohibited the pagan festival, the fun and festivities remained popular. Evidence suggests the church replaced the winter solstice celebration with the feast of the Epiphany on January 6, twelve days after Christmas. This date coincided with the winter solstice and the church intended to secure the worship of only one god –Jesus Christ. Also known as Kings’ Day, this feast honors the three wise men bearing gifts and recognizing the divinity of the baby Jesus. And yes, there was cake!
If you’re wondering how the good times had by all centuries ago translated into Let the good times roll and eating King Cake in Louisiana today, it’s because La Louisiane territory was once ruled by the French and the Spanish. And many customs, even laws, from Latin Louisiana are still practiced today.
Over centuries, serving kings’ cake on the Epiphany remained popular in France. Bakers in boulangeries (a bakery specializing in bread) and pastry chefs in patisseries (a bakery specializing in pastries) each wanted the sole right to sell the cake. When the king granted pastry chefs the monopoly, they made the gâteau des rois shaped into a ring. The gâteau is made of a brioche, a dough using yeast, and topped with jewel-colored candied fruit. This variety is also eaten in Spain but is known as a Tortell De Reis.
Not to be outdone, the bakers made galette des rois with a puff pastry in the shape of a pie. The names translate into “cake of kings.” Eventually small porcelain figures replaced the fève (bean) hidden in the cake. The name and the tradition of becoming king or queen when found, continued. My son is a baker and as you can see, this cake has multiple thin layers and filled with frangipane. A friend who trained as a pastry chef in Paris made the other pictured below. And I got the porcelain fève she hid inside it!
In Spain and throughout Latin America, Roscón de Reyes is eaten to celebrate the Fiesta de Los tres Reyes Mages or festival of the Three Magi on January 6. This cake is a sweet bread, garnished with dried and candied fruits.
During the early colonial period, the cakes baked in Louisiana varied depending on what areas of Europe colonizers were from. The Epiphany or Twelfth Night on January 6th marked the end of Christmas. However as the interest in celebrating a Christmas season shifted to one day, December 25, King Cake began to symbolize the beginning of the Carnival season. And today, the cake is eaten from January 6 until Mardi Gras Day.
Social clubs called krewes were established and in 1872 the Krewe of Rex gave us the King of Carnival and the official colors – purple, green, and gold symbolizing justice, faith, and power. Louisiana King Cakes are decorated accordingly.
I made this traditional King Cake below filled with a cinnamon-sugar mixture using the recipe from my book.
A local bakery in New Orleans named McKenzie supplied these krewes with King Cakes and as the popularity grew, either because of expense and/or availability, the owner substituted the porcelain trinket with a small plastic baby. And today, the King Cake babies come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.
In Catholic tradition, the small plastic baby signifies the baby Jesus. And anyone who finds it is blessed and will have good luck. Another widely practiced custom is to crown whoever “gets the baby” king or queen for the day. But they are also obligated to buy the next cake.
Every year bakeries and chefs get more and more creative with the King Cakes, using different variety of doughs, and fruit fillings. And you can enjoy King Cake donuts, King Cake coffee, King Cake ice cream, King Cake liquor and . . .
. . . King Cake Burgers!
Eating King Cake is the tastiest way to celebrate Carnival and you don’t have to leave your home to do it. You can find many recipes online. In addition to the frozen bread dough recipe in my THE KING CAKE BABY, here’s my Easy Peasy Pillsbury King Cake recipe using dough sheets. Just don’t forget the baby!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Before becoming a children’s book author, Keila Dawson worked as a teacher, school administrator, and educational consultant in the U.S., the Philippines, Japan, and Egypt.
Her debut picture book is THE KING CAKE BABY (Pelican Publishing Co. 2015), her second book, NO VOICE TOO SMALL: Fourteen Young Americans Making History, co-edited with Jeanette Bradley and Lindsay H. Metcalf (Charlesbridge) will release in September 2020.
Keila is a member of SCBWI, writes monthly author studies for the Reading for Research Month (ReFoReMo) blog, and reviews books for Multicultural Children’s Book Day. When Keila isn’t reading, writing, and visiting schools, she’s traveling, playing tennis, or digging in genealogical archives.
She is represented by Dawn Frederick, Red Sofa Literary
One lucky winner will get a signed copy of The King Cake Baby. Enter the Rafflecopter HERE until February 14, 2020, at 11:59 p.m. EST. U.S. addresses and zip codes only. When time expires, the winner will be notified via email. Good Luck!! I hope you get the baby!!
What ingredients would you need to have a wonderful, jubilant, extra-happy, a little bit mysterious winter holiday?
Hmmm, perhaps two furry brown animals (one adorably stout, the other tall and sleek), a perky, yellow-feathered birdie, a warm hollow with a cozy fire, and CAKE!
For added flavor (why not?), add a bustling tea room with chatty critters in the middle of the woods, a basket of dried fruit, and three mistakes (that’s the mysterious part) — and you have the utterly charming new picture book, Wintercake (Greenwillow, 2019),written and illustrated by Newbery winner Lynne Rae Perkins.
You could say this one was written with my name all over it. I will say it’s one of my top three fave picture books of the year, and definitely one of my all-time favorite holiday books. After all, I do love little furry animals (I’m married to one), we do live in the woods (I dream of opening a tea room), and after eating enough cake, I could very well be described as stout. 😀
What’s that? You’re a little concerned about the ‘mysterious mistakes’? I thought as much. Don’t worry, because in this story, we see how mistakes can lead to good things — an adventure, new friends, new traditions — all cause for celebration. Let me explain . . .
This week most of us will be gathering with family and friends for some serious feasting. We’ll travel from points near and far, bringing homemade dishes, stories to tell, and lots of good cheer.
As we take our places around the table, we can express gratitude for our many blessings, strengthen bonds, forge new connections, and enthusiastically lick our chops. 🙂
We’re especially delighted to welcome Minnesota author Melanie Heuiser Hill to Alphabet Soup today, as her debut picture book celebrates all the joyful deliciousness that comes with sharing a good meal with loved ones.
Around the Table That Grandad Built (Candlewick, 2019)is Melanie’s delectable take on the classic cumulative tale, “This is the House That Jack Built.” A young girl first describes how her family sets the table with items that have special significance: “sunflowers picked by my cousins,” “napkins sewn by Mom,” “glasses from Mom and Dad’s wedding,” “forks and spoons and knives — gifts from Dad’s grandma long ago.”
And then (my favorite part!) she describes the mouthwatering menu:
This is the squash that took over our garden. These are the potatoes and peppers we roasted. And these are the beans, overflowing the bowl!
Yum! And there’s more — foods to reflect the diversity of her family, including “toasty tamales” and “samosas, spicy and hot.” This is all topped off with Gran’s homemade bread, Dad’s huckleberry jam, their traditional rice pudding, and lots of P-I-E-S!! 🙂
Jaime Kim’s exuberant mixed media illustrations, rendered in warm and cheery autumnal colors, burst with all the busyness and excitement of pitching in for a special feast.
Each step of the way, as Grandad’s handcrafted table is lovingly adorned by little hands laying on all the objects, ending with plates “red, orange, and yellow,” we can feel the wide-eyed, open-mouthed anticipation building.
By the time we see the finished table in all its glory, we share in the characters’ satisfaction of a job well done, where each has played a significant role. Build a table, build a meal, build a family.
Though this book is perfect for the holiday season, it speaks to any festive gathering of family and friends, where togetherness and convivialty reign supreme. Hungry munchkins will enjoy this lively read aloud as they identify and count objects, recognize colors, observe facial expressions, and pick out interesting details in all the pictures.
Now, let’s find out more from Melanie — can you smell her homemade bread baking in the oven? Mmmmm. 🙂
Pick a Pumpkin captures all the joy, anticipation, excitement, community spirit, and rustic beauty of the season as a family happily picks and carves pumpkins before going out to trick-or-treat.
There’s nothing like visiting the pumpkin patch on a crisp fall afternoon and finding just the right globular beauty:
Pick a pumpkin from the patch —
tall and lean or short and fat.
Vivid orange, ghostly white, or speckled green might be just right.
After enjoying spicy punch and toffee apples, mom and her two kids load their pumpkin stash in their truck and head home, where dad and the baby greet them. They clean and polish their pumpkins, gather the tools they need, and invite some friends over to help them carve.
We follow them through every step, from cutting the pumpkins open, to scooping out seeds and strings, to carving out eyes, noses and mouths. So many different shapes, facial expressions, and pumpkin personalities!
Then it’s time for outdoor decorations:
Cobwebs strung from post to post, Rings of gauzy dancing ghosts. Spiders. Tombstones. Dangling bats. Skeletons and witches’ hats.
Now that the scene is set, everyone dons their costumes before proudly carrying their pumpkins outside. Then it’s that magical moment when the pumpkins are lit — turning them into spooky jack-o’-lanterns!
Its red-hot eyes will gaze and flicker.
Its fiery grin will blaze and snicker, to guard your house while you have fun.
With the neighborhood aglow, mummies, ghosts, witches, skeletons and vampires take to the streets for a howling good time.
Patty’s rhythmic, exuberant text is a joy to read aloud and is packed with vivid sensory details that place the reader smack dab in the middle of all the action.
Lumpy chunks. Sticky strings, Clumpy seeds. Guts and things. With a spoon, scrape sides neatly. Clean the inside out completely.
And how I love Jarvis’s pencil, chalk, paint and digitally colored illustrations! Gorgeous composition and layering resplendent with fall colors and textures. You can just about hear those leaves crunching underfoot, feel the chilly autumn wind on your cheeks, hear the happy chatter of family and friends as they carve pumpkins together.
Just as he did with Pick a Pine Tree, where he included a white cat, this time there’s a winsome black cat for keen eyes to track from spread to spread. Not sure if the cat followed the family home from the pumpkin patch, or if he belonged to them in the first place, but he’s adorable as he balances on fences, plays with the blackbirds, peers out the front window, or sticks his little paw into a bowl of pumpkin “guts.”
I can easily see Pick a Pumpkin becoming a fall classic; it positively glows with fun and goodness!