Since the 14th century, on the feast of the Epiphany, the French eat a cake called une galette des rois. This is a frangipane cake (in Paris and the north) or a brioche (in the south). Inside is a fève – originally a bean, but now a small porcelain figurine cooked in the cake (reminiscent of the ring in a Halloween brack).
The youngest member of the family crawls under the table and, as the cake is cut, announces which family member gets which piece. The one who discovers the fève is declared king or queen and gets to wear the crown (and in turn choose their partner king or queen.)
Published a hundred years ago, in 1914, the final story in the Dubliners collection, and set during the Christmas holidays (probably to celebrate the Epiphany), James Joyce’s The Dead was the perfect book to curl up with on the couch last night.
Although I had read it before and seen the film, and passed the house on Usher’s Island many times, I still read it like the first time.
I was enthralled during the conversation between Gabriel and Miss Ivors as they danced the quadrille. I was captivated as D’Arcy sang ‘The Lass of Aughrim’ and Gretta listened, mesmerised. I shivered as the guests congregated downstairs when the evening was over and the men ran out to fetch cabs and returned with a smattering of snow on their shoulders. I was hoping that Gabriel would manage to express what he felt for his wife, but knew that he would not. Instead he would discover something about himself, about his wife, about his life. Joyce used epiphany as a literary device: It is fitting that Gabriel had his own epiphany on this feast day.
Even though Joyce didn’t live in Paris until after Dubliners was published, I think he must have enjoyed the French galette des rois. After all, look at his description of the feast in Dublin that night:
‘A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets…’
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