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.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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4 Responses

  1. Gary Schafer says:

    Although he is not a frequent Web Browser, this is one of the few sites he DOES check in on from time to time (or have us recap the highlights.). He’s proud of how his “other” eldest son has turned out (both of his “other” sons, actually) so I know this will mean a lot to him. Although the diabetes has taken the fun out of many of his old vices, I am confident he got his hands on at least a little piece of King Cake this Mardi Gras… Now I need to find mine! Thank you.

    It’s funny… Only a few days ago I was reflecting upon one of the many pearls of life wisdom your Dad imparted to us during our youth. I was playing Monopoly with Morgan (who usually stomps me mercilessly). She landed on on one of my hotels, and with great satisfaction I rolled out the phrase that he used to preface his many lessons in the art of Friendly Negotiation, “Now, I am going to let you keep that money…”

  2. Ruth says:

    Funny. Long before I ever knew my husband, Gary, as a boyfriend or even as a friend, I can remember crossing paths with his dad. Gary Sr. made an impression. Who was that guy who was frantically decorating the school cafeteria for the annual Mardi Gras party that Madam Parrish and he had organized? Flaming greens, purples and golds confetti and table toppers were everywhere. Necklaces and fanfare enlivening the drab gray school tables and chairs. I had no idea who he was – just that he was a wearing a funny hat and was carrying a HUGE box with the most elaborate king cake I had ever seen. All the persons there, including Madam Parrish, were running around at his bequest, getting everything to his exact “artistic” specifications. Gary Sr. loves Mardi Gras, but mostly he loves his “boys.” It will mean the world to him to know that you posted your appreciation of his efforts to pass on these traditions.

  3. Beck says:

    My wife unexpectedly got me a king cake this week. We live in Oakland, so she had to mail order it, but it was an awesome surprise–I’m a native of New Orleans. It’s the perfect gift. So long as you don’t choke to death on the baby anyway!

  4. trodoss says:

    Mme. Parrish was one of the good ones. Elder G. has, if nothing else, his organic gardening and his grandchildren. He is one who has “planted seeds for the future” in many people, and in many ways. In that way he was a black belt in life long before I was one in Taekwondo.

    Have to agree with G., I learned a lot from your dad that I have come to appreciate. Probably one of the best business teachers I had 😉

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