The summer I first moved into my 1923 bungalow, I was digging my backyard garden. A few trowels in I hit something hard that turned out to be a small bisque doll about the size of the first knuckle of my pinky finger. The arms and legs, which were connected through the body with wires, were long gone. I had met the old woman, Bernice, who had grown up in the house with her older sister in the 1920s and was sure this was from her childhood. I would later find out this doll was known as a “Frozen Charlie”, the companion to another doll “Frozen Charlotte”, and both were part of a creep Civil War era cautionary story. They would morph into what is now the King Cake Baby, the prize in Mardi Gras king cakes eaten from the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 until Fat Tuesday in early March. The finder of the baby , if they don’t choke to death first, has to buy the next king cake. Even though the American king cake is most commonly eaten in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, Yankees like us can find them in Cincinnati at bakeries like Servattis and Busken. The king cake is a yeasted, cinnamony, braided-ring coffee cake, dusted in icing and sugar in the three colors of Mardi Gras – purple, green and gold.
The creepy Frozen Charlie I unearthed in my backyard garden.
Nowadays New Orleans bakers tell the story that the little plastic baby to be found represents the baby Jesus, because king cakes appear on the Feast of the Three Kings, also known as Epiphany and 12th Night in England. This is the day when the Magi came to visit the baby Jesus at the Nativity. Well, that’s a lovely story, but that’s not the origin story of the little baby in the American king cake.
The tradition of putting a bean or charm in a 12th night cake, which, unlike, a King Cake, is a dense fruitcake, goes back to 1700s England. But the charm was never meant to represent the baby Jesus. The little bean meant the finder was entitled to special privileges or rewards for the day. In France, the little charms are called ‘feves’, which translates to fava bean, the original prize that was baked into the French version of the king cake. The foil wrapped bean or a pecan, evolved into more elaborate charms of small bisque porcelain figures of famous saints, celebrities, and tools. Feves in France are highly collectable and the collectors call themselves favophiles.
French king cake feves.
Carnival historians say that the something-in-a-king-cake tradition started in New Orleans with a golden bean baked into a cake by the Twelfth Night Revelers on January 6, 1870. The king cake was served to young women and the one who got the bean was crowned queen. Many Krewes still do this, but the piece with the baby is usually planted for the already picked queen.
Today, in New Orleans, Haydel’s Bakery each year release collectors feves that represent the culture of New Orleans. As a Haydel favophile myself, I have four – a flamebeau, a calas vendor, a beignet waiter, and a Lucky Dog vendor. They are the work of St. Bernard parish artist Alberta Meitin-Graf. Her first release for Haydel’s in 1990 was a Frozen Charlotte doll, a tribute to the original New Orleans baby. Haydel’s signature bakery is on Magazine Street in the Garden District, and was being renovated after filming a reality show this past fall when I was there.
My Haydel’s Bakery king cake collectors charms.
So, getting back to Victorian America. In 1843 a Maine journalist named Seba Smith penned a poem entitled “A Corpse Going to a Ball” for the Rover newspaper. It was about a girl named Charlotte who, ignoring her mother’s warning to wear a coat, froze to death in her sleigh on the way to a ball with her beau Charlie. It was inspired by a true story published in 1840 of a girl freezing to death on the way to a ball. The story was popularized before 1860 by a ballad sung by traveling folk singer William Lorenzo Carter. Tons of small porcelain dolls were being made in Germany from 1850 to about 1920. They were meant to be bath toys, as they floated, and were cheap enough at a penny for nearly every child to have. In America and Canada they became associated with Seba Smith’s creepy poem, and became known as Frozen Charlottes. Sometimes they even came in a little casket. This cautionary tale to listen to your parents was not limited to girls. That was the purpose of the Frozen Charlie doll – to send the same message to boys. In Victorian times in America, they were planted into birthday and celebration cakes as a reward, but a reminder of the precariousness of death and consequences of parental disobedience.
In 1930s New Orleans, McKenzie’s Bakery owner Donald Entringer ran achain of bakeries that sold king cakes to locals. He had been looking for a special charm other than a bean or a pecan to put in his king cakes. One day a traveling salesman visited the bakery with a huge lot of porcelain Frozen Charlotte dolls he hoped to sell. Entringer bought the lot of dolls to hide in his king cakes and a new tradition was born. He would later find cheaper plastic babies from a local supply store and that was the litte feve that stuck. Other bakers soon followed and everyone in New Orleans was choking up plastic babies from Epiphany to Fat Tuesday. When interviewed in 1990 Entrniger would say,”We were the first to use babies (in king cakes). I’ve heard people say its supposed to represent the Christ Child, but that’s not true. Why we picked this, I don’t know, it was cute. It was a trinket that happened to be a baby.” McKenzie’s, founded in 1929, closed its doors in 2000 due to declining sales against the big box competitors.
So while the Baby Jesus is a cute and sweet story, the original baby in the New Orleans king cake has a much darker origin.
Here is the original text of the 1843 poem “A Corpse Going to a Ball”:
Young Charlotte lived by the mountain side,
A wild and lonely spot;
No dwelling there, for three miles round,
Except her father’s cot;
And yet on many a winter’s eve
Young swains were gather’d there,
For her father kept a social board,
And she was very fair.
Her father loved to see her dress’d
As prim as a city belle,
For she was all the child he had,
And he loved his daughter well.
‘Tis New Year’s eve—the sun is down—
Why looks her restless eye
So long from the frosty window forth,
As the merry sleighs go by?
At the village inn, fifteen miles off,
Is a merry ball to-night—
The piercing air is cold as death,
But her heart is warm and light;
And brightly beams her laughing eye,
As a well-known voice she hears;
And dashing up to the cottage door
Her Charley’s sleigh appears.
“Now daughter dear,” her mother cried,
“This blanket round you fold,
“For ’tis a dreadful night abroad,
“You’ll catch your death a-cold.”
“O nay, O nay,” fair Charlotte said,
And she laugh’d like a gipsy queen,
“To ride with blankets muffled up
“I never could be seen—
“My silken cloak is quite enough;
“You know ’tis lined throughout;
“And then I have a silken shawl
“To tie my neck about.”
Her bonnet and her gloves are on,
She jumps into the sleigh;
And swift they ride by the mountain side,
And over the hills away.
There’s life in the sound of the merry bells,
As over the hills they go;
But a creaking wail the runners make,
As they bite the frozen snow.
How long the bleak and lonely way!
How keen the wind does blow!
The stars did never shine so cold—
How creaks the frozen snow!
With muffled faces, silently,
Five cold, long miles they’ve pass’d,
And Charles, with these few frozen words,
The silence broke at last—
“Such night as this I never saw—
“The reins I scarce can hold;”
And Charlotte, shivering, faintly said,
“I am exceeding cold.”
He crack’d his whip, and urged his steed
More swiftly than before,
And now five other dreary miles
In silence are pass’d o’er—
“How fast,” said Charles the freezing ice
“Is gathering on my brow;”
But Charlotte said, with feebler lone.
“I’m growing warmer now.”
And on they went through the frosty air
And the glittering, cold star-light;
And now at last the village inn
And the ball-room are in sight.
They reach the door, and Charles jumps out,
And holds his hand to her—
Why sits she like a monument,
That hath no power to stir
He call’d her once—he call’d her twice—
She answer’d not a word;
He ask’d her for her hand again,
But still she never stirr’d—
He took her hand in his—O God!
‘Twas cold and hard as stone;
He tore the mantle from her face;
The cold stars on her shone—
Then quickly to the lighted hall
Her voiceless form he bore—
His Charlotte was a stiffen’d corpse,
And word spake never more