The Unknown History of Red Velvet Cake
I haven’t always felt safe saying this, but to me, as a Southerner and a pastry chef, Red Velvet cake has become the archetypal Mediocre Dessert: style over substance. Oh, I get it. It’s pretty and red. But, holy crap, it’s not magic. You poured a freaking petrochemical straight into the batter, of course it turned red. And what exactly does “red” taste like, anyway? Ask around, and you’ll get answers that range from, “um, kinda chocolate” to “like, vanilla?”
I’ll tell you what it usually tastes like, having grown up in the post-Betty Crocker culinary badland of 1980s Kentucky: Crusty frosting with powdered sugar grit. Cotton-mouth dryness. Unmitigated sweetness, and secrets. Oh, the secrets; batter-stained recipes shared only after vows to never reveal Aunt So-and-so’s “secrets,” which, let’s face it, came printed on every box of Swans’ Down flour and in a hundred Junior League cookbooks. But where did those recipes come from?
It turns out, Red Velvet has a more twisting, fascinating history than the oft-told legend about its invention at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel
It turns out, Red Velvet has a more twisting, fascinating history than the oft-told legend about its invention at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, a precursor to the famous “Neiman Marcus cookie scam” story (with the same level of credibility). But thanks to a stash of ancient Southern cookbooks, I’ve pieced together a theory and, I believe, found this cakey orphan’s parents.
Velvet cakes date back to at least 1873, when they were mentioned in Dr. Chase’s family physician, farrier, bee-keeper, and second receipt book. Alvin Wood Chase writes, “There is quite a tendency, of late, to have nice and smooth names applied to things, as well as to have nice things; hence we have Velvet Cake, Velvet Cream, etc.” Chase goes on to provide receipts for both.
And indeed, cookbooks of that era do reveal a penchant for finely named things. My dog-eared copy of The Oxford-University Methodist Church Community Cookbook of 1910 (published under my great-grandmother’s guiding hand) boasts cakes with names like Silver, Lightning, Mahogany, Velvet and Red. By the time of this book, Velvet had simply come to denote any cake with an especially fine crumb, while Red referred to “red sugar” or, in modern parlance, “brown sugar.” These books also contained classics like Chocolate and Red Devil’s Food. The former generally indicated a dense affair of pure chocolate while the latter contained brown sugar and stood in dark cocoa contrast to Angel’s Food.
Knowing the era’s cake lexicon then, it seems clear that Americans would have understood Red Velvet as a hybrid—a Red Devil’s Food crossed with a chocolate Velvet. It was significant not for its redness, such as it was, but for its velvety crumb.
Sure, with a name like Red Velvet, you do expect a certain hue. And cocoa’s natural pigment, anthocyanin, does tend toward red in the presence of acids like buttermilk or vinegar, which are almost always in traditional Red Velvet recipes. But using just these ingredients, the color is faint; the red of Red Velvet had more to do with naming flourishes and symbolism than coordinates on a color wheel.
At least, until John A. Adams came along. His family-owned food colorings and extracts business had fared well since its inception in 1888. But housewives of the Great Depression had little use for his brand of frivolity and sales slumped. So he began setting up displays in groceries throughout the Midwest and parts of the South. These featured Adams Extract Company products under a huge color photo of the reddest Red Velvet cake ever seen. A free copy of the recipe (modified to include Adams Best Vanilla, Adams Butter Flavor, and two bottles of Adams Red Color) came with every purchase. In the austere climate of the day, Red Velvet became a sensation.
Over the years, Adams’ entrepreneurial gambit took on a life of its own. That Red Velvet recipe circulated widely throughout the Midwest and South, reprinted in regional newspapers and evolving as each editor embellished it in tiny ways. By 1972, James Beard discussed three recipes for Red Velvet in American Cookery. All three featured shortening and dye. Given that Adams swapped butter for shortening in his recipe as an excuse to bolster sales of Butter Flavor, the family resemblance seems clear.
What started as an innocent ploy to sell some food coloring has turned into a gross game of one-upmanship as bakers vie to achieve the reddest of reds.
What started as an innocent ploy to sell some food coloring has turned into a gross game of one-upmanship as bakers vie to achieve the reddest of reds; as if redness alone defined the cake and not a fine crumb and the rich taste of cocoa and brown sugar. On the other hand, dye deniers, oblivious to Adams’ influence, have retconned elaborate backstories involving World War Two, thrifty bakers deprived of sugar, and beet juice. I can count my responses to these stories on one hand. With one finger, in fact. Care to guess which one?
Considering all that Red Velvet has gone through, I started to feel a little sorry for it. My hatred began to melt away for this “nice thing” that had suffered such abuse over the years. It deserved more than its fate as the punch line of an urban legend, and it certainly deserved to be more than the crimson chalk-fest I remembered. I went into the kitchen, ancient recipes in hand, feet planted in present.