Fasnaughts and King Cake: Pre-Lenton Traditions in Central PA

Taking the Cake: Talange, France, January 2008

For us in south-central Pennsylvania, the day before Lent is known as Fasnaught Day, a tradition which we celebrate along with parts of Germany, Switzerland, and the Alsace region of France.  In times past, these traditional doughnuts were made to clear the kitchen of sugar and lard prior to the fasting season of Lent.

However, the Harrisburg area is getting a new pre-Lenton tradition, as reported in The Patriot-News on Wednesday, February 15: the king cake.  According to the article “King cake gets the Mardi Gras started,” this cake stems from a tradition imported straight from Louisiana.  It is oval; is often served in purple, green, and yellow frosting; and is embedded with a bean or plastic figurine to represent the baby Jesus sought after by the three kings, or magi, after his birth.  Traditionally, the person who was cut the slice with the figurine was crowned the king or queen for the day.

The Louisiana tradition is imported from an older one rooted in France, Belgium, and Spain.  I knew this cake in France as a galette des rois, sold pre-bagged with paper crowns from the Intermarche across the street and through a thin overgrown alleyway from the Lycee Gustave Eiffel in Talange where I lived.  When eating this cake, I felt that the term “cake” in the American sense was a misnomer; it’s more of a sweet brioche whose appeal lay in the possibility of becoming royalty for one moment.

I shared this cake with my friend Tobias on a cold hilarious night which involves us somehow acquiring two king cakes (note the two crowns) and wearing them both. Because of this, I’m skeptical of the central Pennsylvania version which is smeared with enough frosting to rival a coloring book — I remember this as a cake from simple times.  If the day before Lent is the season for indulgence, I’d rather use the king cake as an occasion for remembrance.


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