The cynical might chalk it up to the sugar buzz, but I believe king cake brings optimism.

It barrels through indecision in favor of indulgence. It can brighten your day, even if it’s the last thing you eat at night. It’s not just a cake, it’s a cultural statement, an emblem for a season (Carnival) and the place where it thrives (New Orleans). 

This is also why king cake has become contentious.

From a simple ring of sugary brioche, this holiday tradition has spawned a cottage industry of king cake creations. There is a business case behind it. Say "king cake" and strong women and men in New Orleans go weak. Call something king cake and they say yes. It whets the appetite and pries open the wallet. 

Hence the king cake concept has become fodder for practically anything edible, and many things that aren’t. And here's where things get sticky. If the idea of king cake is carried so far from the classic that it becomes a flavor profile, a theme or maybe just a color scheme, what are we really talking about? This has made some more than a tad defensive of the classic king cake. 

Just as social media is filled with people fawning over the next new twist, it also delivers the outrage of those offended by king cake mashups and marketing ploys. I heard from some of them last week after I wrote about a clutch of different king cake-inspired finds. The protest usually boils down to four words: "that's not king cake" (plus maybe a frowny face emoji). 

I get it, and I do agree that a baker who can perfect the classic king cake may not need to make any further contribution to the craft. 

The traditional type, after all, is the basis for the entire king cake craze. It was the king cake of school days, break rooms and kitchen counters that set the cravings that forged the memories that make everything from king cake daiquiris to king cake earrings possible products.

But is the king cake actually under threat when people riff on it? Is it really time to draw a line in the granulated sugar? Do we need another word for king cake-inspired creations? Maybe all we really need is a little levity.

We are still talking about dessert, the food realm most susceptible to mischief. Add the X-factor of Carnival, and how can anyone expect it to stay the same, season after season?  

What I love about Carnival in this town is how a traditional framework persists (the old line society krewes, say) while woven across, between and throughout are these threads of individualistic interpretation and creativity (think of your buddy's homemade Fat Tuesday walking krewe). Getting persnickety about king cake feels at odds with the spirit of the celebration.

If the market is driving the ever-expanding notion of king cake, the marketplace can give comfort to those who worry where the trend is leading. For all the manipulations to the king cake model out there now, they remain sidelines and novelties. The best-sellers from the big king cake producers — the local grocery brands, the household name bakeries — are still the classics (except when the Saints have a playoff game during Carnival, of course, when black and gold king cake overtakes all).      

The king cake tent is big enough for tradition and the creative outer limits to coexist. The king cake reigns because New Orleans says it does, because the king cake gets New Orleans excited and hungry and curious about the next one on the table.

Maybe I’ve already had too much king cake this season, but I’m feeling optimistic again. I believe the king cake's reign can continue without insisting on too many rules.




Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.