Walking a sidewalk anytime, I
smell a metallic, coffee-like pungence,
not unpleasant but sharp, almost tangy, and
I am 16, summer, sweating down
Gravier Street, halfway between Camp and
Magazine In New Orleans, with a delivery of
paper and envelopes.
I walk into a grocery store, for anything, and
see a baked circle of flour, cinnamon and
purpled greened and goldened sugar, and
I am 13, at a King Cake party, and my piece had
the plastic baby inside, and I will be the
king to host the next party until
we hibernate for Lent.
I hear an accented voice, anywhere, New
York or Paris or Montreal or St. Louis, with a
distinctive combination of German-Irish-Italian
English, immigrant blended, like Brooklyn but
not quite like, and I am 10, in my boy
suit and tie, punch in hand, at a cousin’s
wedding in the Ninth Ward.
I ache for that smell, that taste, that sound, and
each time I am surprised I didn’t know it.
Update and explanation: King Cake is an old Mardi Gras tradition -- my mother went to King Cake parties when she was young (and she's in her 80s now). Once a week in the month leading up to Mardi Gras, there would be a "King Cake Party," usually for boys and girls in the 12-14 year-old set. It was like a mixer, with junior highers standing around acting embarrassed and eyeing each other nervously. The cake, like a coffee cake, was cut into pieces and served. In one piece was a plastic baby (it was a bean when my mother was a girl). Whoever got that piece became the king or queen (and the host) of the next party. The last party was held the weekend before Mardi Gras. For the full blown history of the King Cake (and it's complicated), you can visit Mardi Gras Unmasked (and dozens of other sites).