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Red Velvet Cake has enchanted people with its vibrant hue and smooth texture, but how did such a niche dessert rise to popularity? What makes red velvet cake red? Or… velvet for that matter?

Join host Justin Dodd as he takes you through the fascinating and complicated history of this delicious dessert, from its association with special occasions, to its role in popular culture.



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The 1989 drama Steel Magnolias is widely credited with popularizing not only Julia Roberts, but red velvet cake. The dessert steals a wedding sequence in which it appears with uncharacteristic gray icing and in the shape of an armadillo in a scene played for laughs. The woman who made it has poor taste than well-you get it. We're here to talk cake though, not movies that will absolutely make you cry.

In 2007, food writer Angie Mosier dubbed red velvet the “... Dolly Parton of cakes…a little bit tacky, but you love her.” While I do not agree with that description of modern-day saint Dolly Parton, there is no doubt that red velvet cake has become a widely known treat in recent decades. You can find it in classic cake form in boutique cupcake shops and even in red velvet flavored protein bars.

The less said about those the better, but it's also grown popular for very different reasons, during Juneteenth celebrations. Steel Magnolias is one reason why people assume red velvet cake has its origins in the South, but as we'll see, it's not quite so simple. What makes red velvet cake red? Or for that matter, velvet?

And just how many bogus origin stories can exist for a single dessert. Let's find out. [Intro] Hi, I'm Justin Dodd. Welcome to Food History.

Let's get the entertaining, but highly suspect origin story out of the way. As red velvet legend goes, a woman was dining at New York City's famed Waldorf Astoria Hotel in the 1920s when she was bowled over by a layer cake. One with a deep red center and contrasting creamy white frosting.

She asked management for the recipe and they were happy to oblige her for a modest fee. In some versions of this tale it's a hundred bucks, while in others it's 350 dollars or even a thousand dollars. In the slightly sketchy logic of the story, it's apparently seen as rude or unusual to ask a hotel or dining establishment

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for a recipe, and the Waldorf was making their passive-aggressive displeasure known by happily sharing the recipe and then sending the curious customer a massive bill.  The guest was so outraged, the stories say, that she distributed the recipe for free to as many people as possible. Sometimes publishing it in a newspaper or handing it out to people on a bus. Another version of this tale has the woman charging people ten bucks each for the recipe until she recouped her costs. There are examples of the woman being from different regions of the country depending on where the story was being told.

This probably didn't happen. It's worth mentioning though because the tale seems to have helped red velvet cake take on the alternative name of the Waldorf-Astoria cake. Initially, the hotel denied it was ever one of their cakes, but as the letters asking for the recipe kept piling in, that story conveniently changed.

Now it's a classic part of the Waldorf- Astoria legend, either through the corrective efforts of the hotel's archivists or the savvy work of their marketing team. A more credible red velvet tale begins in the 1940s, when food was being rationed thanks to World War II. This was not great for the Adams Extract company, which sold, you guessed it, food coloring as well as flavor extracts.

The company had gotten its start in the early 1900s when founder John A. Adams, no relation to Paul Giamatti, marketed his vanilla flavoring by going door-to-door with his sons. At the time, vanilla was delicate.

You weren't supposed to bake or freeze it. Adams added ingredients like licorice to make it more stable and gave it a money back guarantee. At night, the family packaged their goods by the light of a kerosene lamp.

Business was good, and then the war hit. Supposedly in an effort to boost sales of food dye, Adams extract began issuing point of sale posters and tear away recipe cards in supermarkets. The recipe was for red velvet cake, and naturally it called for red food coloring.

There was eventually even a catchy sexist slogan that accompanied the recipe: 

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"The cake of a wife-time." I'm so sorry, but that's history for you. Ugh, gross.  Frustratingly, accounts differ on which member of the family came up with the idea. And timelines in the various versions of the tale tend to be fuzzy.

There's John A.Adams, Fred Adams, a John G. Adams, and a number of wives who may or may not have been inspired by a dining experience at the Waldorf Astoria. We know The Adams family [Addams snapping] likely had something to do with the cake's rise in popularity, but as for who the mastermind was behind the red velvet recipe cards, at this point I'm not even going to rule out Cousin Itt.

The Adams Extract company didn't invent the cake and we might never really know who did.  According to Stella Parks and her book BraveTart, there was a 1911 recipe for velvet cocoa cake, which was very similar to Devil's Food but replaced the chocolate with cocoa. As that recipe spread, people started baking the cake with acidic ingredients like buttermilk, which for reasons I'll get back to in a second, started to give the cake a red hue. Not the bright red of a modern red velvet, but more red than a normal chocolate cake.

And this cake got the name Red Devil cake. Not a drop of food coloring to be seen, yet. In 1922, someone wrote into an Indianapolis newspaper asking why their Red Devil cake was sometimes red and sometimes brown.

In response, no one suggested adding food coloring. Then, in 1938, Mrs. Raymond Smiley of Columbus, Indiana (who knew Indiana was such a hotbed of red cakes) sent a recipe into Betty Crocker for a cake she invented called Red Devil's food.

Her secret ingredient was red liquid vegetable coloring. On the radio, Betty Crocker gave the seal of approval and eventually the recipe got published as Real Red Devil's Food Cake. It seems that then we entered a period of great confusion, an era historians call the Red Velvet Fog (in my own made-up version of history).

In 1943, Irma S. Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking has

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a recipe for red devil's food, without food coloring, while a 1942 syndicated newspaper columnist put a teaspoon of the additive in her Devil's Food. In the 1950s, cakes labeled red velvet more often than not didn't have any food coloring. But as the 50s gave way to the 60s, the lines between red velvet and red devil's food started to blur.

They are different cakes, but at one point recipes for both Waldorf  Astoria red velvet cake and Waldorf Astoria red devil's food cake were circulating.  People writing into newspapers asking for red velvet recipes were given red devil’s food recipes and vice versa.

And the red velvet increasingly pushed its older brethren to the side until red devil's food, to the extent it exists anymore, is usually the food coloring-free option. But how do you create a red or even reddish cake without food coloring? The magic of science, which I guess is sort of the opposite of magic.

Let's take the red out of the equation for a moment and just focus on velvet cakes. Contrary to popular belief, a velvet cake isn't named for its appearance, but its texture. Bakers in the 1800s dubbed cakes velvet when they were moist and smooth.

This was often achieved by adding things like cornstarch, almond flour, or most importantly for us, cocoa. When you mix cocoa with vinegar or buttermilk, you can get a slight red tinge to the mix. That's because unprocessed cocoa harbors anthocyanin, a pigment you can also find in red cabbage.

One that changes color depending on pH levels. When anthocyanin mixes with an acid like vinegar, it gets redder. That's one way red velvet cake may have gotten its name.

That, or the use of brown sugar, also known as red sugar, could have been an influence since it was more readily available in the 1800s than white refined sugar. At some point, someone decided to turn up the color either for fun or because Dutch cocoa, which had grown in popularity, was responsible for less acidity in the mix than raw cocoa. Vegetable food coloring became a popular choice 

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to turn up the saturation. But then and now, some chefs cannot bear the thought of using food coloring in cake, so they add color naturally. Beets get the job done. So do cherries.

Other chefs find that those additions don't quite work so they opt for the dye. And still, others believe the true secret to red velvet cake is in the dye. Some very hard red velvet battle lines have been drawn, but most everyone agrees that simply putting red coloring into yellow cake mix is not permissible.

The recipe has to use cocoa in order to be classified as a legitimate red velvet cake. If you do not use cocoa, then you're just dying a vanilla cake red. And what exactly are you trying to pull?

A fast one? Yeah, I won't stand for that, but I will take a slice sitting down please. The U.S. wasn't the only country gripped by red velvet mania in the 20th century.

The cake became something of a staple at Eaton's, a chain of department stores with dining rooms popular in Canada. The red velvet cake recipe was said to have originated with Flora McCree Eaton, also known as Lady Eaton, who inherited the chain.

In fact, it had been purchased by Eaton from an unknown source. She insisted her employees never gave the recipe away. They did, but only after Eaton's closed permanently in 2000.

Back in the states, red velvet cake was becoming more entrenched. It began popping up as a competitive entry and state fair contests. Rarely mentioned in newspapers in the 1950s, by 1960 it was getting a lot of press.

Red velvet cake started appearing on school lunch menus and during gatherings for Easter and Christmas. But not all this coverage was positive. In 1976, after the FDA announced the ban on Red Dye No. 2 owing to safety concerns.

According to Soviet research, it caused cancer in lab rats, word went out that making red velvet cake might be a little thornier that year. Mildred Coleman of the FDA noted that some people used two whole bottles of coloring to make the cake. She implied that wouldn't be such a great idea, though there was probably little actual

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danger. The dye was replaced by Red Dye No. 40, though the use of any red dye caused enough consumer concern that Mars took red M&M's out of their candy-coated lineup until 1987. Despite that fleeting scare, red velvet continued chugging along. After Steel Magnolias made a co-star out of the cake, New York's Magnolia Bakery (no relation) took it a step further, offering red velvet cakes and cupcakes.

The surge of trendy boutique bakeries popping up throughout the country into the 2000s made red velvet a menu mainstay. For proof, I point you to the 2002 wedding of America's sweethearts Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson, who dined on a towering red velvet cake during their reception. Sadly the marriage did not endure, the cake has.

Red velvet cake has also played an important part in cultural celebrations, especially in Black American families. That's because red-colored food is a common sight at Juneteenth gatherings which dates back to the 1865 emancipation of enslaved people in Texas. The color is thought to symbolize the blood shed by enslaved people.

Though, others suggest the color symbolizes resiliency and joy. Strawberry soda, hot sauce, and even hot links dyed red pop up frequently. Though it's hard to pinpoint exactly when red velvet cake became a table fixture for Juneteenth, a recipe for devil's food cake with cocoa that included red vegetable coloring appeared in the 1948 cookbook A Date With A Dish by author Frida DeKnight.

Many Black Americans were likely familiar with the dessert long before Steel Magnolias, but it's often harder to track family traditions than it is to note the efforts made by public-facing companies with an incentive to market their culinary contributions. One piece of anecdotal evidence: Red velvet was evidently a part of enough celebration menus that author Adrian Miller told the Washington Post, he was criticized for not including it in his 2014 book Soul Food:

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The Surprising Story of American Cuisine One Plate at a Time. Miller, for his part, stood by the conclusion that the cake was relatively recent addition to Black American cuisine. Red velvet cake has become one of those treats that hit the zeitgeist in a major way. In addition to the cupcakes and protein bars, at various points you've been able to find red velvet Pop-Tarts, red velvet brownies, and red velvet scented candles.

In 2010, there was even a red velvet encrusted chicken dish courtesy of the Frankenstein chefs at American Cupcake in San Francisco. And if you're in Texas, you might be able to spot the red velvet ant, which isn't an ant at all but a wasp that's evolved to look like an ant. Nature's weird.  In 2013 Adam's Extract capped red velvet fever by offering a commemorative package consisting of cocoa, flour, and red dye.

All the basic ingredients they promoted in supermarkets decades earlier. More recently, they released a plant-based food coloring made of beets.  So why do we love red velvet cake? Maybe because it wears its decadence on its sleeve.

There's no mistaking red velvet cake for anything, but a total indulgence. The slightly unnatural color signals that this probably isn't going to be great for you, and we do not care. Cake is meant to be enjoyed and few cakes broadcast that as brazenly as red velvet.

It's delicious and unapologetic, something I myself aspire to be. Thanks for watching.