Perhaps because America is a democratic country and has done away with the nonsense of kings, we tend to ignore Jan. 6, the feast of Three Kings -- or Epiphany or Twelfth Night as it is variously called.
Stuffed with goose and Christmas pudding, groggy with auld lang syne, we let slide our last chance to celebrate before the bleakness of winter sets in. The last revel before Valentine's Day, and where are we? Standing atop a scale while visions of watercress dance in our heads.
In older countries, they are not so respectful of their livers and waistlines. Twelfth Night finds people closing the holiday season in proper fashion, paying homage to the King of the Bean. It is a very old custom to have a king and/or queen for the night. The person who finds the bean in the Twelfth Night Cake rules the evening.
In 1563, at Holyrood in Scotland, the role went to Lady Fleming, an attendant to Mary Queen of Scots. The true queen clothed the Bean Queen in her own jewels and robes.
"The Queen of the Bean was that day in a gown of cloth of silver, her head, her neck, her shoulders, the rest of her whole body so beset with stones, that more in our whole jewelhouse were not to be found," wrote a participant in that long ago Twelfth-Night revel before Mary learned that to be Queen of the Bean might be preferable to being Queen of the Scots.
The night was made merrier by generous servings of wassail or lamb's wool--a drink made of sugar, spices and the pulp of roasted apples. Lamb's wool was often whipped up for special occasions. Food historians who have tried it gently suggest that the modern palate might prefer simple mulled cider spiked with rum.
Fowls, both wild and barnyard, were a favorite Twelfth-Night gift. In earlier days, before Oliver Cromwell came to power and banned such celebrations, it was considered great fun to serve an enormous Twelfth-Night pie. Cut it open and out would fly a flock of live birds, or perhaps there would be a sudden outpouring of frogs, or if the pie was very big, a small person would jump out.
The king was restored to England, but the pies were not, probably because of the difficulty of shoving 4 and 20 live blackbirds up through a hole in the bottom of the crust.
However, the Twelfth-Night cake -- Galette des Rois -- survives. Although many stores will have them in stock, it is wise to place your order today from any of the following shops:
* The French Market, 1632 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 338-4828.
* Sutton Place Gourmet (ask for the Bakery Section), 3201 New Mexico Ave., NW, 363-5800.
* Avignone Freres, 1777 Columbia Rd. NW, 265-0332, where it is called King's Cake, and comes in sizes from 3 lbs. up at $4.50 a lb.
* Les Delices French Bakery, 4200 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 244-1164.