When I did a brief stint at a migrant support center a few years ago, my supervisors were this lovely Mixteco couple. Early that January, when all the Christmas and New Year’s festivities had subsided and I was just steeling myself to face the Pacific Northwest’s “Long Dark” of late winter, I arrived work to find . . . cake.
“Tenemos roscón de reyes, if you want try it,” said my boss.
“Oh, sí, ¿qué es eso?”
“Es para el Día de los Tres Reyes. Es tradicional.”
Roscón de reyes simply means, “King’s Crown”, a tradition imported from Spain to the New World. On Epiphany—when the visit of the tres reyes is celebrated—the family gathers and celebrates together, and eats a roscón de reyes.
Sounds like my kind of shit, thought I, and I headed eagerly to the back room to find the cake waiting in a large, rose-colored donut box. The plastic top panel revealed the contents: a ring of yeasty yellow cake, coated in powdered sugar, and bejeweled with some kind of green and orange . . . were they like gummy worms? Candied orange peel?
I still couldn’t tell you.
I cut a slice for myself and brought it into the common area. When I took a fork to it, the tines found a small little white piece of plastic, which emerged slantwise from the yellow cake onto the paper plate.
“Oh, encontraste el niñito,” said my boss, matter-of-factly.
I looked down at my plate. It was a figurine of a little child.
“You . . . you find the child Jesus,” he said again in English. “Like the tres reyes. Now you host the party for Candelaría.”
I didn’t end up hosting a Candlemas party that year, but I loved the idea of a contagious party, so when we moved to California, my wife and I invited some friends over for a Three Kings Party on the night of Epiphany. The Mexican bakery in town, El Rosal, had roscón de reyes, so I went down and picked one up. I explained to our five or so guests, friends at the Christian camp where we lived, how it worked: you get the baby Jesus in your slice, then you host the next party. Simple.
Except there were four niñitos in the cake for some reason. That created enough confusion that nobody was on the hook to throw a party for Candlemas on February 2nd.
The next year I was working with four high schoolers planning to launch a youth group at the church where I worked. When I realized our weekly meeting would fall on Epiphany, I called El Rosal and, in (now rusty) Spanish, asked for a small cake with just one niñito. Whoever got baby Jesus in their cake was king or queen for the night, and got a crown and everything. One of our sophomores, Mason, got the little figurine, so we hailed him as King (“Long live King Mason!”) but he was too embarrassed to give us any orders. But it was still fun.
Last year I wanted to make a roscón de reyes that my wife could eat. My wife has Crohn’s diesease and mostly eats an AIP (autoimmune protocol) diet. Wheat and sugar are out. So I looked up a Spanish website that had an AIP roscón. Something went wrong, however, and the cake melted into a puddle in the oven both times I attempted to make it.
And this year is the pandemic, and things are complicated, so we didn’t really celebrate Epiphany at all.
I’m really bummed about it. I’m worried my idea is petering out.
I’m stubborn when it comes to these things, however, so you can bet I’ll be back at it next year, trying to get my friends to gather on Epiphany to eat a roscón, and hopefully on the hook to host another party in February. I’m thinking about adapting it since we have no cultural context for Candlemas here in the States. Maybe . . . Mardi Gras?
Talk to me in a year. We’ll see how it goes.