Every now and then I get the question, "where does red velvet come from?"
Like all of my customers I'm also curious and also wondered where this simple recipe for what is a delicious and elegant base to some of the most beautiful cupcakes and cakes originated.
Let's start with the basics from which all three versions stem from. Red velvet was popularized in the movie Steel Magnolias where a red velvet armadillo cake was served. From that movie the cake started being used as a base to many different desserts including cupcakes.
My search led me down three paths which I will share with you. Being a lover of food and not history I'll leave it up to my flourfriends to decide which they like best.
The first and probably most argued is the story of a woman who was dinning at the Waldorf Astoria in New York and tasted the red velvet cake. Upon her return to California she could not get the cake off of her mind so she wrote the hotel, got the name of the chef and asked him for the recipe. The chef sent her the recipe along with a bill for $300 for his services. Outraged she went to a lawyer who told her that she in fact was responsible for paying for the chef's services since she never asked what his fees were in advenced. She swallowed the proverbial jagged pill and sent the cheque. Revenge being sweet and as far as dishes go, best served cold, she printed the recipe on cards and started handing it out to everyone along her travels.(1)
Maybe it's me but the idea of a chef willingly parting with a recipe without any guarantee of book deal or royalty, is a far fetched one. More far fetched is someone a continent away parting with $300 plus lawyer fees willingly and after already having received the recipe. While for me the least believable it is the most fun version because it is full of travel adventure, intrigue and drama.
Next version which is by far the most credible is that that red velvet is a spin off from Devil's food cake food. The recipe for red velvet cake consists of chocolate, vinegar and baking soda. When combined these ingredients undergo a chemical reaction which yields a red hue(2). This however is a faint red and not what you see in your typical cake.
In the 1930's Adam's Extracts, a company in texas, was struggling through the depression years. John A. Adams decided to place in his points of sale across the country tear-off recipe cards for red velvet that used his vanilla extract and food coloring to make the red velvet cake with the deepest red anyone has ever seen. This idea became wildly successful and gives John A. Adams the credit for the mordern day red velvet cake(3)
Third version like most great inventions originates in Canada with our favorite department store. Red Velvet was a popular cake at the bakeries of the Eaton's Department store. Legend has it that the recipe was a well guarded secret of Lady Eaton herself and that the bakers and employees in the bakery were sworn to secrecy.(4)
Each story unique and as intriguing as the red velvet cake itself.
Happy Baking! :)
1. Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989.
3. Beard, James and Thollander, Earl. James Beard's American Cookery. New York, Budget Book, 1996.
4. Anderson, Carol; Katharine Mallinson (2004). Lunch with Lady Eaton:Inside the Dining Rooms of a Nation. Toronto: ECW Press