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!!
So pleased to welcome award winning author Mary Quattlebaum to talk about her new National Geographic Kids picture book, Brother, Sister, Me and You (2019), which features the unique sibling bonds of eleven different types of animals (including humans). 🙂
Mary is uniquely qualified in this subject as she grew up with three brothers and three sisters. Her lively, fun-to-read rhyming text is paired with color photos of adorable cubs, kits, chicks, pups, and ducklings who are having too much fun leaping, paddling, tumbling, climbing and bouncing together. We soon see how humans are much the same when it comes to interacting and playing with our siblings.
Sister lion leaps and pounces.
Honeybees do wiggle-bounces.
Ducklings paddle through the water.
Brother splashes sister otter.
So, why did Mary want to write this book? What are some of the things she liked to do with her brothers and sisters? Yes, cooking was one of them, and she’s got a couple of recipes to share. Read on!
Award-winning author Deborah Hopkinson is here to talk about Independence Cake (Schwartz & Wade, 2017), her brand new picture book that officially hits shelves today.
Illustrated by Giselle Potter, this scrumptious “revolutionary confection” is a fictionalized account of how Amelia Simmons, who would go on to write the first American cookbook, bakes 13 Independence Cakes to celebrate George Washington’s inauguration.
As an author for children and teens, I visit schools all over the country, and like to begin by asking students the difference between nonfiction and historical fiction. My new picture book, Independence Cake, is most decidedly fiction, as the subtitle makes clear: A Revolutionary Confection Inspired by Amelia Simmons, Whose True History is Unfortunately Unknown. In this light-hearted story with delicious illustrations by the incomparable Giselle Potter, we meet an orphan girl named Amelia, who is sent by the town to live with the fictional Bean family to help the exhausted mother of six sons and no daughter (“Definitely a recipe for domestic disaster in 1789”).
The real Amelia Simmons authored American Cookery, the first American cookbook. On the title page she identified herself as “An American Orphan.” Although historians know little about her, she may have been a “bound girl,” or indentured servant. In any case, the actual Amelia no doubt led a much harsher existence than her fictional counterpart.
In my story, Amelia’s reputation as a cook results in the town asking her to bake a special cake for George Washington at his 1789 inauguration. Amelia makes thirteen: one for each of the original colonies, which are carefully packed in wagons and driven off to New York to be pronounced “delicious” by the first president. (As the author’s note declares: this is entirely a confection!)
What is true about Amelia Simmons is that her cookbook expanded on traditional English cooking to include culinary influences and available ingredients in America. The legendary food historian Karen Hess, in an introduction to the second edition of American Cookery, published in Albany in fall 1796, speculated that the author may have lived near the Hudson Valley and been influenced by Dutch settlers. Simmons used terms such as “slaw” based on the Dutch “sla” for salad, and “cookey,” from “koekje.” In some recipes, Simmons substituted cornmeal for the oatmeal of English cooking, reflecting the influence of Native American traditions. Simmons seems to have been intentionally creating something new: the long subtitle of her cookbook notes that recipes are “Adapted to this Country, and All Grades of Life.”
The recipe for “Independence Cake” first appears in this second edition, directly following one for “Election Cake,” of which it is a variation; both contain raisins, brandy, and spices, similar to a traditional English fruitcake or plum cake. The cakes were part of the holiday spirit that surrounded early election days. Amelia’s patriotic fervor may have led her to call one “Independence Cake.”
I like to imagine Amelia as an American version of Daisy in Downton Abbey – a cook eager to try new things and embrace the future, although clearly Amelia had a pinch of Mrs. Patmore in her too. Here’s a snippet from her book in which she opines about the character-building properties of cultivating apple trees:
“Apples…. ought to be more universally cultivated, excepting in the compactest cities. There is not a single family but might set a tree in some otherwise useless spot, which might serve the two fold use of shade and fruit; on which 12 or 14 kinds of fruit trees might easily be engrafted, and essentially preserve the orchard from the intrusions of boys, &c. which is too common in America.
If the boy who thus planted a tree, and guarded and protected it in a useless corner, and carefully engrafted different fruits, was to be indulged free access into orchards, whilst the neglectful boy was prohibited–how many millions of fruit trees would spring into growth–and what a saving to the union. The net saving would in time extinguish the public debt, and enrich our cookery.”
Although I wrote Independence Cake long before the 2016 presidential election, I noticed some bakers took the election season as an opportunity to share historical tidbits about the culinary tradition of election cakes. I’ve included a few below.
And speaking of elections, given Amelia’s interest, noted above, in extinguishing the public debt, she might well have wished for a political career herself.
Except, of course, in 1789 women couldn’t vote. But that’s another story.
Deborah Hopkinson is the award-winning author of more than 45 books for young readers including picture books, historical fiction, and nonfiction. She has won the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for picture book text twice, for Apples to Oregon and A Band of Angels. Other titles include Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, winner of the IRA Award; and Sky Boys, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor book. In addition to Independence Cake (May 2017), she just published a contemporary picture book, A Letter to My Teacher (April 2017).
Deborah’s nonfiction includes Titanic, Voices from the Disaster, which received a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction honor and a Robert F. Sibert Honor and Dive! WWII Stories of Sailors and Submarines in the Pacific. Her nonfiction picture book, Keep On! The Story of Matthew Henson, Co-Discoverer of the North Pole, won an Oregon Book Award.
Visit Deborah Hopkinson online at www.deborahhopkinson.com, or follow her on Twitter @deborahopkinson and Instagram @deborah_hopkinson