“What’s king cake?”

Silence.

Five of us have come into the kitchen to refill our wine glasses. Four pairs of eyes are scanning me in confusion. The silence breaks with someone’s machine gun-like titter.

“You’ve never had king cake?” one of them replies, hand on her hip.

Shifting my stance, drumming un-manicured nails on the granite counter top, I’m suddenly aware that my clothes are all black. My eye-liner, thick and black. I feel like a northern-urban-vampire next to their muted peaches, sages, and creams. I’m trying to cling to the words my husband said to me as I left the house—“You have to treat the whole thing like we’re expats. You’re an ambassador from the North.”

“I’ve never even heard of king cake,” I smile, “I’m such a Yankee.”

They all look down, then up to different spots on the walls. I thought teasing myself with their word would be appreciated. But it’s clear it’s their word, and I am not to use it.

I wish Amy Lynn would walk in the kitchen right now. She’s an old friend of mine from New York City. We’ve been friends for twenty years, and she’s partly responsible for our move south to Asheville, North Carolina.   She grew up in Mississippi and speaks North and South. My husband and I have been here two months, and Amy Lynn insists I need to get out and meet people on a regular basis. I know she’s right. She’s invited me to tag along tonight, although not exactly my demographic, to attend her women’s church book group.

I was doing fine while we were discussing the book, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, although I did say, “Ugh. All those annoying letters,” and, “So your only problem with the book was that a woman asked a man to marry her? Really?”   Thankfully someone  said, “Wine refill in the kitchen!”  I catapulted out of my chair towards the bottle.  I shouldn’t have strayed from Amy Lynn’s visible perimeter. She’s in the other room discussing annoying letters.  I’m on my own. Me. Them. The king cake.

“King Cake, as in Christ the King,” one of them answers, with a melodious drawl.

Uh-oh.

Just one week ago my husband and I had gone for a drive. We’d  gotten twenty minutes out of Asheville and were on some back roads.  We made a wrong turn and pulled into a gas station to turn around when we saw it. In a grassy lot between the gas station and an industrial looking building was a large white cross, at least half as tall as a telephone poll. In bright red block letters it read, “BLOOD SECURED REDEMPTION.” We looked around for the church. There wasn’t one.

The woman continues, “You know, for Carnival.”  She’s searching my eyes for a light of recognition like a nurse searching a patient’s eyes for consciousness.

I’m ashamed of my prejudices. I want burning crosses, Footloose, Confederate Flags on Ford pick-ups, and Nancy-Grace-haircuts out of my head. How would I feel if they assumed that I was rude—pushy—a horn honker, or was pals with the Mob Wives? I think to myself what nice people these are and what an asshole I am. I’m an ambassador from the North, for Christ’s sake, I tell myself.

Another lady leans in, “Don’t you know about Mardi Gras, hon?”

Nipples and beads?

In a small voice I reply, “In New Or-leens?”

“Yes!” they say, laughing and clapping, “like in Nawlenz!” They are relieved.

What New Orleans has to do withNorth Carolina I have no idea, but I’m shutting up now.

“See, the king cake has the Mardi Gras colors,” the woman, whose name is Darla, says.

I didn’t know Mardi Gras had colors. Is she a Summer? A Winter?

The cake is a circle with a hole in the middle, like a big doughnut with purple, green, and gold sprinkles. She politely cuts me a slice. The inside looks and tastes like coffee cake. It’s good.

The rest of the women enter the kitchen, “Oh, the king cake!” someone exclaims. “We have to see who gets the baby Jesus!”

Amy Lynn winks at me. I must be grey.

Darla continues to educate me. “There’s an itty bitty plastic baby inside the cake. A tiny baby Jesus. Whoever gets the Jesus in their piece of cake is supposed to have good luck for the next year, and has to host the next king cake party.” She smiles and nods at me, continuing on to someone else, probably glad to be done with the lesson.

“Thank you,” I bow, in self-appointed-ambassador fashion, my tongue now searching the cake in my mouth for the plastic Christ. She didn’t say how itty bitty. Is it a Chiclet-sized Jesus? A BB-sized Jesus?

Darla winds up with Jesus, who is about half the size of a golf ball.

*

Later that night, back home at our tiny rental house, I go over the day. Don’t use the “Y” word. Check. King cake. Check. Nawlenz. Check. Don’t eat the baby Jesus. Check.

My husband asks if I had a good time. I lie and tell him yes. I can’t dump this on him. Not while he’s laying out his clothes for substitute teaching in the morning–one of his three part time jobs. Not while he’s asking me if my right arm is still sore from scooping ice cream all week–the only job I can find. Not while we’re putting ear plugs in our ears to drown out the sound of our drunk twenty-something neighbor setting fire to a pile of stolen wood pallets for a bonfire and playing Cornhole with his drunk friends.

I lie in the dark and remind myself why we came to Asheville–to start over.

The decision to leave New York City was a culmination of many things, including 9/11, the mistake of ditching artistic pursuits for corporate sales and law school, a nervous breakdown or three, a bad cocktail of prescription drugs prescribed by an incompetent psychiatrist, and an overall loss of selves–all in and around an age ripe for a mid-life crisis.

Somehow we didn’t let go of each other, and after the dust settled, started a search for a new town. A place to reclaim our artistic selves.

Out of the blue I got a call from Amy Lynn who was coming through New York with her husband. I hadn’t seen her in six years. They were living in Asheville, and when I filled her in on all we’d been through and what we were looking for, she said, “You need to see my town.”

Four years later we’re still here. We’ve found other artists, writers, friends, community. Our jobs have improved. We bought a house. It’s not perfect, but we have each other and our work-in-progress-selves.

After we moved I learned of Asheville’s history of being a healing destination dating back from 1795 into the 1930’s, which included F. Scott Fitzgerald and O. Henry.  I guess we had good instincts.  And some luck.

I now have a better understanding of why North Carolinians are eating New Orleans king cake. It’s because they’re the South. The South is comprised of many Souths, but together they are The South. I can’t name it exactly. It’s a deep bond the rest of us can’t know. The only thing I can relate it to from my personal experience is being a New Yorker. Even in vast differences there are unspoken understandings.

Once a year I drive north to see family. Driving down the steep curves out of the little bowl that’s surrounded by Blue Ridge Mountains, I uneasily look back over my shoulder, not wanting to leave the isolation. When I return, my shoulders sink down as the road winds up and up and up, and away from the world.   Some say the reason Asheville has become such a unique and creative city is because its isolation has bred ingenuity. The price I pay to enjoy that is that I remain an ambassador from the North.

 

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KIM WINTER MAKO has been published at Ducts, and is a frequent contributor to the Listen to This –Stories in Performance series in Asheville. Kim grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Syracuse University with a BFA in Theatre. She lived in New York City for twelve years pursuing an acting career and now lives in Asheville, NC with her husband.

22 responses to “Don’t Eat the Baby”

  1. I love Nawleenz. Reminds me of, “Would you like some lemon naaaaade?”
    Great job, Kimmie!!!
    We miss you up North, laws yes, we do.

  2. A.K. Benninghofen says:

    More importantly, don’t choke on the baby…or the conversation, lol! Great piece!

  3. Jeffro says:

    Asheville is, in my personal opinion, one of the most beautiful places in this country. And since it’s such a small world, I have to ask: do you know any folks with the last name Little — perhaps a blonde female accompanied by a tall, skinny long-bearded (you know, since no one in Asheville sports a long beard) Mandolin player named Will?

    • Kim Winter Mako says:

      I don’t know the Little’s, but it’s the kind of town where I would probably recognize them by sight. I had to laugh at “Mandolin player,” because I’ve come across many! It’s that kind of place.

      • Jeffro says:

        I’ve known Sara my whole life. She grew up here in Virginia (Charlotte County). Funny thing about Will the Mandolin player. The first time I met him was during their engagement party. At that point, I’ve got a few beers in me and say, “Hey Will, nice to meet you. I hear you play mandarin.” And he says, “I believe that is an orange.” Ha. I’ll never forget that. I don’t think he plays mandolin anymore, but instead keyboard. The band’s name, and I definitely may be spelling this wrong, is Duende Mountain Duo. Just look for a guy that resembles (or may very well be the offspring of) Chris Barron of The Spin Doctors circa 1991.

  4. Kari Sickenberger says:

    I love how you focus your fresh northern eyes on this old south. I love that you have brought them – and your whole beautiful and fresh self – down into our mountain bowl. And I love how you are stirring it up. Keep up the good work, Ambassador.

  5. d.e.levit says:

    Great Story! LOVE it! I’ve had king cake (way up here in good ol nyc) but didn’t know i was at risk of eating a little baby jesus (or why it was called king cake)! mardi gras office party – i brought the etouffee. then the bastards fired me a few months later. if only i got baby jesus! if only i knew i mighta eaten the whole thing. purple, green and gold cake was not too popular – not like my etouffee. bastards glommed that $%^&. x0 – keep up the good work!!

  6. Meghan Strange says:

    So well done. Loved this, Kim. Please keep writing, I want more!!!

  7. Greg Olear says:

    I’m trying to think of a joke about Jesus in the king cake and transubstantiation, but I’m too tired, so I’ll limit myself to saying: great piece. It’s so nice to have you on board the TNB Express!

  8. Robert Winter says:

    Loved the story and recall that I’ve never heard a northerer pronounce New Orleans quite right. Keep up the good work!

  9. Ashley (N.O. Lady) says:

    This was fantastic and made me giggle more than once. I didn’t know NC celebrated Mardi Gras but down here, there is much less emphasis on Jesus throughout the entire holiday. I’m happy you got a little taste of king cake and carnival but when you’re ready for the whole parade, give me a holler and I’ll show you around.

    -Ashley

  10. Jeremy Winter says:

    So good! I love writing that revolves around people arriving in unfamiliar territory, physically or otherwise. You’ve got a great knack for this. Looking forward to more! – Jem

  11. Jessie Thompson says:

    I have read a few of your things now and am loving it. Moved and inspired.

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