King cake gives Baltimore baker a taste of home
BALTIMORE (AP) — At 8 years old, Jose Vargas learned to make rosca de reyes, a traditional Mexican dessert, alongside his grandfather in the kitchen.
Vargas, 48, moved from Puebla, Mexico, to the United States in 1999. But he brought his love of rosca de reyes with him and now prepares and sells 400 to 500 of them every year at his Vargas Bakery in Highlandtown in preparation of Día de los Reyes, or Three Kings Day, on Jan. 6.
Rosca de reyes, or king cake, is topped with fruits sticking to a color palette of yellow, red, white and green, Vargas said. The cakes are oval-shaped, resembling a Christmas wreath.
“It signifies the love of God because it doesn’t have a beginning, doesn’t have an end,” Vargas said in Spanish.
Each rosca, which usually has an orange taste and is in between spongy and firm with a breadlike texture, takes Vargas a little over an hour to make. He bakes the cakes in batches and then decorates them individually.
“Our roscas have a special touch from our town,” Vargas said. “A different flavor.”
Vargas said he opened his small bakery, located on the corner of South Highland Avenue and Gough Street, 15 years ago. As customers step into the space and approach the front counter overlooking more sweets than can be counted — including Vargas’s favorite, sweet concha bread, which is usually flavored with chocolate or vanilla — there are party-ready signs overhead in English and Spanish for baptisms and First Communion celebrations.
Across the street from Vargas Bakery is Taqueria Vargas & Restaurant, which serves Mexican favorites. A third business, Vargas Restaurant & Bakery in Essex, is managed by Vargas’ son, Gary, and there’s a bar and grill in development. Vargas Bakery is the oldest of the bunch.
Gary Vargas, like his father, grew up helping out in the kitchen.
“As soon as I would get out of school, I would like to help my father out a little bit, after I’d done my homework and everything,” Vargas, 21, said. “He would let me help him out — baking bread, taking bread out, assorting it.”
Jose Vargas said the bakery has been the family’s best source of income for years. When he first came to Baltimore, he worked for another Hispanic-owned bakery in the area, which he said has since closed. Vargas said the demand for bread was high, but there was a shortage of Latino-owned bakeries in the area, so he decided to open his own. He chose Highlandtown because it already had a thriving Hispanic community.
Baltimore’s Hispanic population has increased nearly 77% since 2010, according to 2020 census numbers. Hispanic residents now make up about 7.8% of the city’s population.
At Vargas Bakery, customers can order rosca de reyes in three sizes. The largest comes in at $45, followed by a medium-sized rosca for $35 and a small rosca for $25.
Inside each rosca are small plastic baby dolls, meant to represent the baby Jesus. Vargas said whoever finds a baby doll in their slice must prepare a dish, such as tamales or arroz con leche, for the religious celebration Día de la Candelaria, or Candlemas, in February.
The large cakes come with six figurines, the medium cakes with four and the small cakes with two, but Vargas is happy to add as many dolls as a customer wants for an additional fee.
Evelyn Canabal-Torres is a principal lecturer in the Spanish and Portuguese department at the University of Maryland. She lived in Puerto Rico until she was 17 and said Día de los Reyes is a “huge day” there.
In the story of Jesus’ birth, the three kings, sometimes called wise men, brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to commemorate the event.
Canabal-Torres recalls festivals and processions on the holidays, with statues of the three kings appearing everywhere. Children receive gifts after leaving grass in shoeboxes for the kings’ horses. There are parties where everyone drinks, eats and dances.
Now that her son is grown up, Canabal-Torres visits home around the holidays and gets to celebrate Día de los Reyes. When asked her favorite part about the holiday, Canabal-Torres said it’s that “Christmas lasts longer than anyplace else.”
Rosca de reyes isn’t part of the island tradition, but Canabal-Torres celebrated in Mexico one year and said the cake was “delicious.”
She thinks it’s important to celebrate the holiday, even far from home, because it feels distinct from a more commercialized, American Christmas.
“Most of us didn’t come here because we wanted to. We sort of had to go to better ourselves. And I believe it keeps us grounded to who we are,” Canabal-Torres said. “It’s mostly the folk tradition, the music, the traditional food. It’s happy to be singing in Spanish and dancing and being, I don’t know, loud and happy about it.”
Vargas said he makes eight large roscas for his family alone, which comes to about 50 people on Día de los Reyes.
But it isn’t just Latinos who partake, Vargas said; the bakery gets orders from non-Hispanic Americans, too, and larger orders from schools and churches.
“It’s a nice part to bring back to the community a little bit of what his pueblo was, a little bit of taste, a little bit of diversity,” Gary Vargas said. “Basically what this means — the bakery, the restaurants and everything — basically just to bring a little piece of home to everyone who is here, who can’t go back.”