What a city can learn from Mardi Gras' most famous dessert
Despite access to hundreds of restaurants in Columbus, we have a lot to learn about food.
We’ve nailed the eating part. It is the stewardship that turns cuisine into culture that is frequently absent. There are maybe two fistfuls of cooks and restaurants that have the potential to generate a genuine Columbus cuisine, and then there is the indestructible New Orleans menu of Way Down Yonder, which may very well be a restaurant Columbus doesn’t deserve. The food is consistently some of the best in the city, regardless of regional trappings, and as Mardi Gras approaches, you can smell the sugary blanket of king cakes not far behind.
If king cakes are news to you, think of an enormous Cinnabon made with actual care and slathered in history and ritual. If you celebrate Mardi Gras but have never eaten a piece of king cake, you have broken several verifiable Louisiana laws. No one cares if you have diabetes. Pop an extra Metformin that day. It’s Mardi Gras.
Excited at the prospect of laying eyes on a fresh king cake made within city limits by actual NOLA folk, I reached out to the Yonder family. I just wanted to observe one being made. In true Southern fashion, Yanda Millz — a daughter in the cooking clan and maker of everything on the menu but queen of the desserts — graciously offered to come to my house and show me how it was done. Seeing as how she was just invited to partake in a Food Network baking competition, it was like having Parliament/Funkadelic call and say it wants to play your birthday party.
Watching Millz make a king cake in her patient and thorough twang is as much a lesson in community as cooking. All of the food served by her family is purportedly made with love, but in watching her make a king cake, I actually felt loved. Her care was clear, her lessons warm. In the two-hour breaks where we sat and waited for dough to work its magic, there was an exchange of foodie reviews, advice on where to really go in NOLA, phone pics of a Mardi Gras passed. A couple of my friends came by to witness the process — one with baking skills, the other a king cake neophyte — and in the swigging banter of my small kitchen, a new thing rose just as sure as dough: community. Those who had not met were now engaged like house party cousins, the cinnamon-spiked dough rolled out on a table I pretended was always that kitchen-ready. In such moments our truths come out, and it didn’t matter that she freely shared her recipe, because we both knew at the end of an oven ding, only she can make her cake.
Thanks to a dear friend from good Louisiana folk, I receive a king cake every year. I know its taste and its journey. I have scored the baby Jesus hidden inside multiple times, and I finally got to honor my friend with this king cake, made with as much love as Yanda Millz could muster in my dinky kitchen. Good friends deserve masterfully made pastry, but now I want those whom I take to task regularly to peer into this moment. I want to make City Council make a king cake, every police officer, every school administrator. This king cake is an act of community drizzled with homemade icing (and a secret sauce Millz refused to part with), and it tastes the way a city that wants me to call it home should feel.
Columbus could learn a lot from a king cake like that.