The man who gave me King Cake
Knowing what a King Cake is makes me feel special, even though it’s only special in the way that anyone who has ever been to Mardi Gras is part of the club. Nonetheless, knowing the taste of King Cake is better than knowing the taste of a Boston Cream or Key Lime pie. Don’t ask me why, because I could blow though 1,000 words explaining the sweetness, the sugar-crunch, the almost-savory nutty center. I don’t crave it, except for the one day of the year when I do.
If you’d asked me this morning who first gave me King Cake, I would’ve snap-answered with the name “Al Koch.” I’ve written about Al before. I met him my freshman year in college. A few months later, he took me to my first Mardi Gras and what would be my first of countless trips to New Orleans. Al’s mom made the most authentic and absolute best gumbo I’ve ever eaten. I learned to dismember and suck crawfish on Al’s back deck. I saw my first parades with Al, got my first authentic beads, and shared my first Tropical Isle hand grenade. Up until this morning, I would’ve told you Al introduced me to New Orleans culture. And while Al and his friendship are still largely responsible for making me love the Crescent City as much as I do, there is another man who deserves a lot of credit.
My first taste of New Orleans–King Cake included– came at the suggestion of a man named Gary. He was one of my best friend’s fathers. A veteran, a postman, an artist, and an all-around good guy, Gary helped organize annual childhood Mardi Gras parties. It’s all very vague, but I remember the reserved man front and center at every one of those events. In fact, my memory of the parties is very cloudy, but my memory of Gary’s leadership is clear. I remember him explaining the ritual of finding the baby in the cake and its meaning. I remember him celebrating when our little city got its first authentic Cajun restaurant. He took us there more times than I can count.
Looking back, I think I was probably too young to appreciate what he was doing for me. Even now, I don’t know where Gary picked up all his New Orleans knowledge. He was well-traveled, I know. He also introduced me to Bulgogi and sushi. I remember not being able to stomach the sushi roll, but begging my mom to replicate Gary’s Korean barbecue.
It’s funny, because it’s very easy for me to point to my mom and grandma for giving me a love of food and cooking. And it’s very easy to credit Al with giving me a doorway into New Orleans. Somehow, it’s taken me until now–some two decades after I stopped spending as much time with my buddy’s dad–to recognize that he was quietly introducing me to new worlds. They were places and tastes I didn’t even know I should want to exist. Now, New Orleans, King Cake, Korean barbecue, and sushi are some of my favorite things in the world.
We’ve been trying to eat fairly healthy over the last couple of months, so my wife was sheepish today when she carried the King Cake box into the house. I think I was probably the most excited person in the house. I immediately whipped up some jambalaya and we feasted. My son got the baby, a point of pride that he won’t soon forget.
I know Gary’s son–still one of my best friends–reads this blog from time to time. I’m not sure if the elder Gary does. In any case, I think I owe the man a public thank you, because he introduced me to a lot of things I eventually came to love, and a lot of things I’m passing on to my kids now.