Monday, January 7, 2013

Galette des Rois, or, Catholicism & the French

America, with its history rooted in Protestant ethos such as manifest destiny and other financially related principles (let's just say televangelism and prosperity theory would never have originated anywhere else), is fairly unique in that religiously-based cultural events have been somewhat whitewashed of their ecclesiastical roots.  Ours is one of the few societies that has constitutionalized the separation between church and state; I suppose in a country that was founded by those persecuted for their faith and where there are just so many radically divergent faiths all operating within a single democratic society, such a demarcation might be necessary and fair.

And so the deep Roman Catholic roots of Europe can be a surprise; it is the main religion of most
European countries including France.  Young and old, everyone participates in rituals that to me are deeply religious - in both its origins and modern manifestations of the symbology - but which are, to the average Frenchman, just a part of his national culture...nothing more.  In fact, most French are atheist or agnostic even if they profess to be Catholic.  All my French friends subscribe to this marvelous oxymoron ("Well, I'm Catholic, but really I'm agnostic/atheist/more spiritual than religious").  In other words, participating in rituals, to them, is more a part of being French, than being Catholic.  But we participate in this masquerade too:  who of us engages in Thanksgiving thinking the whole time that they are honoring our founding fathers defrauding and majorly screwing over the Native Americans?  And how about Christmas and its overtly pagan rituals?

An example of entrenched Catholic roots in French culture is the Galette des Rois.  Here is a picture of one that I ate with some friends last night.

I provided a picture of the bakery's address because this is one of the best patissieres in Paris...believe it or not, not all of them are good here, even the ones lauded in critics lists or Zagat (it's all advertising), but this one...oh...*blowing an air kiss to it*.
I had noticed these big-wheeled confections in all the bakeries this month, starting right after Christmas.  And then a friend brought one over as dessert for dinner.  He explained that it was called a Galette des Rois (Cake of Kings) and that the tradition was that whomever received the little plastic statue in his portion of the cake (the little bunny above) wore the crown as king (or QUEEN!).  Whoever is crowned is monarch for the day and has the obligation to bring the next king cake.  Usually, the cake is cut into however many pieces as are guests plus an extra slice that is called the piece "for the Virgin Mary" which is given to the first poor person to arrive as a guest = modern translation, leftover piece for whoever straggles in last.

The pastry is flaky and delicious, with a filling of ground almond paste called frangipane.  My friend mentioned that everyone buys these and makes the rounds with friends and family with this cake all throughout January in celebration of the Epiphany.  I have a Christian background but I have no idea what that term means and I was so curious so of course I immediately jumped on to Wikipedia.  Here is the link to it if you are interested, but basically, it's from the Catholic liturgical celebration of the Solemnity of the Epiphany, celebrating the visit of the 3 magi (the "3 kings," hence the name of the cake), which occurs on the 12th Night (from the the date of the visit), followed by the Epiphany Day.  The cake is eaten between Epiphany Day up until Mardi Gras or "Fat Tuesday," the day before the start of Lent.

Random observation post and something I find interesting - the saturation of each country's religious roots into its national culture.  Korea has so many of them and the U.S. has some too if you dig deep.  Now that I think about it, most of ours have been appropriated as drinking opportunities.  Hmm.

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