Nowadays, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parade is known for throwing beads into the crowd. But that wasn’t always the case. How’s this for a weird historical fact: In the late 1800s, people found some less appealing things to throw at Mardi Gras – like dirt and flour.
What’s the history of throwing things at Mardi Gras?
According to The Historic New Orleans Collection (cited below): “The first reports of items being thrown as part of the official parades we know today came in the early 1870s with the second procession of the Twelfth Night Revelers, according to Carnival historian Errol Laborde. Following their ‘Mother Goose’s Tea Party’–themed parade, a costumed Santa distributed gifts from his bag.”
Throwing things into crowds actually dates back to at least the ancient Romans and the fertility festival called Lupercalia.
HNOC notes, “These annual rites of purification and fertility were associated with the vernal equinox that marked the return of the sun. In medieval France, the fête de la quémande saw groups of peasants emerging from the dark winter, donning miters and pointed hats to mock the wealthy classes, and begging and dancing for items to eat. That tradition continues today with the Cajun courir de Mardi Gras.”
In early New Orleans, ladies threw sweets and bonbons, But their kids had something else in mind.
“Bands of youths would throw flour (and, later, nastier substances, such as rotten fruit, plaster pellets, urine, and caustic lime) at revelers on Fat Tuesday. One newspaper in the 1840s reported on Ash Wednesday that the streets looked as if snow had fallen.”
Eventually, all that flour went towards sweeter things.
The rise of “King Cakes”
According to legend, a New Orleans baker named Roulhac Toledano made the first King Cake in the 1870s.
He was inspired by a French treat made of puff pastry filled with an almond paste called the galette des rois, traditionally eaten on Epiphany. But Toledano’s King Cake was sweeter and it wasn’t flaky but doughy. And it was decorated with sugar dyed the traditional Mardi Gras colors purple, green, and gold.
The tradition of hiding a small “baby” inside the King Cake wasn’t part of the deal until decades later. The baby in the King Cake tradition started in the 1930s.
Whoever finds the baby in their slice of King Cake will have good luck. But they also have to bring a King Cake to the next Mardi Gras party. — WTF fun facts