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Beth Underwood: Even Mardi Gras has rules, but at grandma’s house the King Cake carries septuplets


I recently made an interesting observation about our family. On the whole, we’re sticklers for the rules. We hold fast to long-established traditions, routines, and other forms of convention.

Except for when we don’t.

There are times when we can be real rabble-rousers and rule breakers — real outliers intent on paving our own way forward.

I bring this up because Tuesday, March 5, is no ordinary Tuesday. It’s Fat Tuesday, the culmination of the season of Mardi Gras, and a time when we’re encouraged to eat, drink and be merry to excess.

If any holiday highlights our rogue ways, it would be this one.

Our celebrations start out innocently enough. In keeping with the traditions of Mardi Gras, we gather for at least one meal featuring the King Cake for dessert. Are you familiar with it? It’s one of the biggest stars of Mardi Gras — braided Danish dough topped with fondant and a colored sugar glaze of purple, green, and gold. It’s often adorned with Mardi Gras beads that match the colors of the sugar glaze.

But the real star is the plastic baby Jesus figure hidden inside the cake. Legend has it, whoever finds the baby Jesus will have good luck throughout the coming year and be crowned host for the coming year’s party.

That same legend says nothing about what happens when one bites into the plastic baby and breaks a tooth. But I digress.

Anywho, setting aside prospects for emergency dental work, there’s another problem to consider. Mom and Dad have seven grandchildren. Each cake, however, has but one plastic baby. As you may have guessed, this is the point at which all the rules get tossed out on their ears.

Oddly enough, it hasn’t always been this way. Years ago, Mom and Dad let fate play its own hand as we played plastic baby Jesus roulette with our teeth.

They’ve mellowed through the years, though — not for fear that we’ll chip a tooth, but because what is fair for children isn’t necessarily so for grandchildren. That’s right, I said it.

To wit, my parents started running plastic baby Jesus interference.

That’s right. They rig the placement of the baby,

Initially, they’d locate the plastic prize, and assign cake slices accordingly, ensuring the same kid didn’t come away with the prize two years in a row.

A few years later, Mom upped the ante by saving each year’s plastic baby for future use. That way, she could cut the cake and hand it off to Dad, who could strategically stuff a plastic baby into each kid’s slice.

Everyone finds plastic baby Jesus in their cake. It’s a miracle.

It may not be customary, but it does ensure happy kids at the dinner table. And we might as well have fun while we can. For on Wednesday, we begin our season of Lenten fasting. As you know, we’re real sticklers for the rules. Except when plastic baby Jesus figures are involved.

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Beth Underwood is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines. She shares stories of everyday life that entertain, inspire, and encourage others. Her books include Gravity, a narrative nonfiction account of a small group of Tennessee National Guardsmen, and Talk Bourbon to Me, a lighthearted look at Kentucky’s native spirit. Drop her a line at beth@bethwrightunderwood.com, or visit her website at bethwrightunderwood.com.


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