On a recent trip to New Orleans, I had the good fortune of sitting down with La Boulangerie co-owner Donald Link and Pastry Chef Maggie Scales to sample a few king cakes. The pastries were beyond divine and when paired with their signature coffee, I was practically ready to up and move to the Crescent City.
As my time with Link and Scales ran out, I began to gather my things and head for the door when I heard, “Pssst! You like king cakes?!” I looked around to see who might be speaking to me; a stranger two tables over beckoned. She called me in closer and pressed a copy of Matt Haines’ glorious tome, The Big Book of King Cake into my hands, intoning, “You need this…”
She wasn’t wrong.
I DID need this book in my life.
And the world needs The Big Book of King Cake—a compendium of the city’s most beloved king cakes, complete with enough food porn pics to make you gain weight just flipping through the pages. I reached out to author Matt Haines, to learn more about the unique power of the king cake and how exactly this book came to be.
Good Grit: WOW, your book The Big Book of King Cake (TBBOKC), was just released in December 2021 and you are already in your third printing—congratulations! Why do you think this subject—and your presentation of it—has resonated so well with readers?
Matt Haines: When I set out to write this book, I imagined it was going to be a book about cake. But I quickly learned The Big Book of King Cake would be far more interesting if it was about the people who make the cakes. Every king cake in this book is unique and the things that make the cake one-of-a-kind give us clues into the lives of the amazing people behind them, as well as to the ever-evolving city of New Orleans.
GG: Tell us one of those stories.
MH: Saba's babka king cake exists, for example, because James Beard Award-winning Chef Alon Shaya wanted to marry his familial eastern European history with his love for his new home. Creme Confectionery offers king cakes for customers with all types of food allergies because owner Nicole Maurer has a gluten intolerance and it breaks her heart to think that a child with an allergy wouldn't be able to enjoy this very special part of Carnival season.
GG: Given the long and storied history of king cakes, how has this book never been done before?
MH: Honestly, that was the big surprise to me. I've been writing about king cake for years, and the amount I learned about the topic while researching this book could have filled several encyclopedias.
GG: It sounds like lifelong New Orleans residents AND readers who’ve yet to visit the Crescent City will learn something new. Who did you have in mind when you were writing TBBOKC?
MH: The Big Book of King Cake tells the story of people and a city through the prism of king cake, with stories of amazing New Orleanians including, among others, refugees and former drug addicts. Their stories show how baking saved their lives, and their history is on full display in the king cakes they make.
This book is for anyone who loves food, history, sweets, culture, and of course, New Orleans. It's not a traditional cookbook, though we do include a few great recipes. At its heart, this book is for people who want to learn about one of the most unique food traditions in America and beyond, and how New Orleanians—whether they've lived in the city their whole life, or they've moved here in the last year—express themselves through that tradition.
If you love photography, you're going to be amazed by the many hundreds of mouth-watering photos by local talent Randy Krause Schmidt, who was there with me at every single photoshoot. If you love stories, we feature 75 different king cake bakers, and explore the things that make each baker and their cakes, both, unique as well as part of the larger king cake story. And if you love history like I do, then this book dives into the thousands-year history of king cake, dating all the way back to the ancient Romans. It tells how king cake expanded across Europe and found its way to the empires that would eventually colonize Louisiana.
GG: What was the hardest king cake story to tell and why?
MH: The hardest story to tell was also one of my favorites. Martha Gilreath of Nolita, the pop-up bakery she owns, was homeless and addicted to drugs for years. She slept in a tent under a highway bridge and said that's where she thought she'd die. It was a terrible life and she said it was when she realized she wasn't going to die—but rather that she'd have to wake up like this every day for the next 30 years—that she decided to check herself into a rehab facility in Charleston, SC.
At the facility all residents were given chores, and it was quickly discovered by everyone who tried her food that Martha had a talent in the kitchen. One day, one of the other residents was turning 21 and Martha had heard he really liked cheesecake. She made him one and remembers the huge smile wash across his face when it was brought out to him. "I'd never seen him smile before," Martha said. "My baking made him feel that way and that's when I was like, 'Damn, I need to keep doing this.'"
After rehab, Martha moved back to New Orleans and enrolled in the baking program at the New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute (NOCHI) where she graduated and was named valedictorian. She's now an award-winning baker with a king cake that regularly sells out.
Baking has helped Martha rebuild her confidence, her relationships with family, and her life. That rebirth is what king cake represents to her. I love that story because of the hope in it, but that's just one example in the book. All 75 bakers we cover have their own unique journeys.
GG: Was there anyone you did not include but wanted to?
MH: There were quite a few bakeries I wanted to include but couldn't! There are seemingly endless varieties of king cakes being made in New Orleans, but we can't fit all of them in the book. We decided to go with 75 bakers because while we wanted to show a large number of king cakes, we also wanted to make sure we had enough space to tell the bakers' stories. There are some great king cakes we had to leave out, but we have a fantastic variety in the book. We have everything from the traditional king cakes that have existed for generations to newer ones like guava cream cheese king cake, chocolate king cake, muffuletta king cake, taco king cake, cricket king cake (from our city's insectarium), king cakes for dogs, and so much more!
GG: Sounds like you might need to write another book…
MH: Volume 2 is probably going to be necessary at some point down the line, but I think readers will be very happy with all there is to learn in this 368-page behemoth!
Note: you may purchase the book directly from Matt’s website, www.thebigbookofkingcake.com or from any of a number of retail outlets, also listed there. As always, we encourage you to shop local and support local when and where you are able.