NEW ORLEANS — People here like to say that you aren't really at home in New Orleans until you can stomach king cake, but David Haydel thinks outsiders can develop a taste for the unusual.
Haydel and his brother Gary run Haydel's Bakery, one of a number of city bakeries ready to ship the cakes--iced in the three gaudy Mardi Gras colors--anywhere in the nation.
"Last year," David Haydel says, "a lady called me and said, 'Honey, I just received one of your cakes and it's all green.' I said, 'Darlin,' as long as there's gold and purple with it, it's OK."'
Shaped Like Giant Doughnuts
King cakes, made of sweet dough and shaped like giant doughnuts, taste good. It's just that, iced with the traditional colors of the carnival, they don't look so good.
They start showing up locally around Christmas time. Haydel says they sell 10 or 15 a day then and about 3,000 a day during the carnival season.
In France, king cake is served on Epiphany, the 12th night after the birth of Christ when the three kings are said to have arrived with gifts. In New Orleans, king cake is served daily right up until Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), which falls this year on Feb. 7. Local bakers think the tradition can be exported to the rest of the country.
"Last year we shipped 8,000 king cakes out. That's a big jump from back in 1985 when we were shipping 75 a day," Haydel says. "This year we expect to do 5,000 a day."
Haydel ships not only the cake but literature on Mardi Gras and carnival trinkets such as plastic beads and aluminum coins called doubloons. Another New Orleans baker, Gambinos, has a similar package.
Baked inside each cake is a tiny plastic baby. Tradition has it that the person who gets the slice of cake with the baby in it must host the next party. At some parties, the person who gets the baby is crowned king or queen.
Federal Express now works with five bakeries that ship king cakes, while smaller local shipping companies say they are also sending out more of the gaudy pastries.
'A Lot Invested in This'
Haydel's hopes to gross more than $2 million in king cake sales this year.
"If we don't do pretty close to that, we're going to be very unhappy. We've got a lot invested in this," Haydel says.
The bakery has spent about $75,000 in national advertising and has installed a computer and a toll-free telephone number to handle orders.
"It's like a little bit of Mardi Gras to get a king cake," says Haydel. "Carnival is no time to be away from New Orleans, but if you have to be, at least you can have a little bit of it sent to you."