If tradition is good for anything, it’s knowing when we can break from it. Don’t listen to purists—when it comes to our food, the most fun creations are happening at the margins, shunning orthodoxy. And in New Orleans, that means futzing with our beloved seasonal dessert, the king cake.
There is a growing selection of king cakes that eschew the sweet for the savory. One example is the king cake muffuletta, combining two famed New Orleanian classics. I first became aware of the delicacy via a tweet showing the.... sandwich? Deli-meat-stuffed cake? It’s at Zuppardo’s, a grocery store in nearby Metairie. (The tweet mentions “the Larry Ragusa prophecy,” referencing a fictional chef from a series of 2010s satirical videos who created over-the-top king cakes.)
King cake is a staple of Carnival season, the span of time between the Catholic holidays of Epiphany (January 6) and Fat Tuesday (February 21 this year). The dessert matches the season: a sweet, colorful treat meant to be shared.
The history of the king cake is long, beginning in Catholic Europe “associated with Epiphany during the Middle Ages.” And while today we might think of New Orleans as having French history, Spaniards were here too (and Brits, but they’re famously not Catholic). And king cake is more closely related to its Spanish cousin, rosca de reyes, than its French one, galette des rois.
The muffuletta is a contribution to New Orleans food culture from another group of Catholic Europeans: Sicilians.
“Starting in 1884 and continuing through to 1924,” Nola.com writes, “an estimated 290,000 Italian immigrants—a great deal of them from Sicily—arrived in New Orleans.” Their impact was so great that the section of the French Quarter they landed in was known for a while as Little Palermo.
Popularly understood to be invented at Central Grocery by Sicilian immigrant Salvatore Lupo, the muffuletta sandwich combines cold cuts, provolone, giardiniera (aka olive salad), and other vegetables between Italian bread topped with sesame seeds.
Both items are distinctly New Orleans, but do people actually want to eat them as one? According to Joseph Zuppardo, one of the owners of the grocery chain Zuppardo’s, the idea came from conversations between management realizing that “people will buy anything that looks like a king cake.”
But don’t worry—you aren’t paying for deli meat slapped between slices of cake slathered in icing and colorful sugar.
“It’s not a traditional king cake,” Zuppardo tells The Takeout. In fact, it’s just a muffuletta disguised as a king cake, with the traditional sesame seeds dyed purple, green, and yellow and the melted provolone cheese (not icing) acting as an adhesive atop the bread to keep them in place. “With your eyes closed, you wouldn’t know it’s a king cake.”
Zuppardo’s is in its third Mardi Gras season of selling the photogenic sandwich hybrid. And according to Zuppardo, its popularity has only increased with time.
“The first year, people who got it were hesitant,” he said. “We hadn’t had a chance to really advertise it, so they didn’t know if it was going to be sweet. Last year we sold a decent amount more, and most of that was just repeat business. This year… I think in the case right now I’ve got about 15 of them. And if we don’t make some more, I’ll be out of them before lunch.”
Zuppardo’s is not the only grocery store catering to these curious customers. Another chain, Rouses, is also selling a king cake muffuletta. Reps for the chain told The Takeout that the Rouses version is also not sweet—what appears to be icing on the top of the bun is, in fact, queso.
Local baking powerhouse Bywater Bakery (owned by Chaya Conrad, who popularized the New Orleans Chantilly Cake) is offering savory king cake, in your choice of Crawfish, Muffuletta, and Boudin flavors. The savory king cakes don’t try to incorporate any dessert-level sweetness; instead, they commit fully to the savory side, using a base of garlic bread and parmesan cheese.
If you talk to a purist, they’ll likely tell you that a traditional king cake shouldn’t deviate from a circular swirled cake with a hole in the middle. But the king cake muffuletta is a testament to the joy of pushing of the envelope, a culinary tradition made malleable and adaptive. Maybe one of the local businesses will go fully over the top next year, with a muffuletta made from actual slices of king cake—but it probably won’t be Zuppardo.
“I’m not telling you what people will buy—I know I wouldn’t buy it,” he said. “But I wouldn’t put anything past people nowadays. They’ll try it once. How much repeat business you’ll get, I can’t promise you that.”