I had heard of King Cakes in association with Mardi Gras but I had never heard of a King Cake on Epiphany. That all changed on January 6, 1996. Bill and I had just met a few months prior but were already deeply in love and were in Pittsburgh. It truly was the worst of times. His mother, a young widow, was hospitalized in Pittsburgh and we didn’t know from day to day if she would survive. We were working as full-time VISTA volunteers in Knoxville, Tennessee. We were paid $580 per month for a full-time job (the idea was to live among the poor) to improve the lives of poor communities in America. In a political move, Newt Gingrich and his party had shutdown the government over a budget squabble. We were told that it was “illegal” as government employees to return to work. We went to Pittsburgh to wait out the shutdown and to figure out how to deal with the news that his mother would not be able to continue living in her home.
Pittsburgh was cold, gray and snowy. The situation was grim. We had just found out that the budget shutdown had been resolved but it soon became clear that we would both need to leave our jobs, move to Pittsburgh and become full-time caregivers to his mom until she could move to a facility that had skilled nursing available. It was an extraordinarily stressful day.
Then we spotted the King Cake in the foyer of the house just before 10pm upon returning from the hospital. Beloved master baker Sue, who lived down the street and understood the seriousness of the situation, had left an exquisite chiffon cake with a coin baked into it and a simple white paper crown for us. As the tradition goes, you each cut a piece and if you find the coin in your piece you get to wear the crown and be the king or queen for the rest of the day. Bill found the coin and I quipped, “It’s 10pm. Your reign will be short indeed.” We were so grateful for that kind gesture. It was the highlight of the day by a landslide.
I have baked a cake with a coin in it every January 6th since that night to remind me that no matter how bad the day has been, celebrating the Epiphany and looking for a coin in a cake always makes life a little more fun.