Did a New York City Hotel Really Create Red Velvet Cake?
The South may claim this classic dessert as its own, but the ruby red baked good may not truly be so Southern after all.
No Southern church cookbook is complete without Ms. Pearl’s Famous Red Velvet Cake.
Or her name may be Ms. Bessie, Mrs. Banks, or even just Grandma.
But in every town and community across the South, there exists the little lady who makes every church potluck complete with her version of the holiday-red cake with fluffy white frosting.
The red velvet cake is so ensconced in Southern culture these days, you’d feel safe in assuming the cake was born here, perhaps centuries ago, in the kitchen of a cook bent on making a recipe that would impress her family or neighbors.
And you’d probably be wrong.
Who created the red velvet cake?
It seems the red velvet cake is perhaps not very old and not too terribly Southern.
There is no written record of the cake, no lineage of who first dreamt it into existence, who first published it in a cookbook, and how it came to be so widely adored across all the states.
But historians and intrepid food journalists have managed to piece together enough of an outline that we can safely say this: We really don’t have any idea.
A velvet cake was a term used in the Victorian era to differentiate between cakes that were popular in that day—sponge cakes and pound cakes—which happened to be fairly dense and chewy and a type of cake that used almond flour, cocoa, or cornstarch to lend the cake a soft, fluffy texture and fine crumb.
During this era, cooks discovered that if you combined acidic ingredients like vinegar with non-Dutch processed cocoa (which was typically all that was available at the time), a cake would develop a faint red hue.
A mahogany cake, which is a lightly-flavored chocolate cake, used cocoa powder instead of chocolate, and it developed a red-brown tint because of that exact chemical reaction between the cocoa and acidic ingredients. A cousin to the mahogany cake was a deep, chocolatey cake called devil’s food cake. It used chocolate, however, so it was a deep brown color.
According to Serious Eats senior editor Stella Park, during her appearance on The Splendid Table, a combination of devil’s food cake and mahogany cake was first published in 1911 as a recipe for a velvet cocoa cake.
Is the red velvet cake Southern?
As the cake recipe sifted through kitchens and cooks in the 1920s and 1930s, it picked up an iconic Southern ingredient, buttermilk, which further amplified the cake’s natural tanginess—and its acidity. Combined with the cocoa that was available at the time, the cake had a remarkably red shade.
In the 1930s, the Waldorf-Astoria, a famed New York City hotel, began serving red velvet cake. Indeed, it’s credited with the creation of the cake, but as the research shows, they only capitalized on a cake that was already somewhat known throughout the country.
WATCH: You Must Try This Red Velvet Ice-Cream Cake
Around this same time, Eaton’s department store in Toronto, a ritzy establishment by any measure, began selling red velvet cake. They, however, credited Lady Eaton as the creator.
But these red-tinted velvet cakes would not likely resemble the vibrant red cakes we know and adore today. No, that color only came about as a result of a World War II-era creation: red food coloring.
And this, it turns out, is where the South has a role to play.
Down in Texas, John A. Adams, a businessman who made his livelihood selling food-grade extracts and dyes, was looking for a product he could sell in World War II-era America, when food rations limited options for many goods. Cocoa was scarce, which meant the natural red hue of the cake wasn’t always possible. Cooks were turning to beet juice or pureed beets for color.
Sterling Crim, the managing partner and chief marketing officer for Adams Extract Company, told The New York Times in 2014 that John and his wife, Betty, first ate red velvet cake at the Waldorf-Astoria.
Adams decided to capture the market—and perhaps secure his business a sustainable source of income—by creating a similar recipe that featured red food dye. The extract company’s version of red velvet cake also included vanilla extract and butter flavoring, as war rations limited the amount of butter people could get.
Red velvet cake’s place in Southern culture
After the mainstreaming of the recipe, thanks to the Adams Extract Company, the popularity of the cake remained consistent, if not lukewarm, in communities on every coast. In 1972, James Beard recounted that the cake was bland and uninteresting. Noted cake authority and baker Rose Levy Beranbaum didn’t have a single recipe for red velvet cake in any of her cookbooks in the 1980s and early 1990s.
However, a cultural moment—and a Southern one, at that—may have cemented the impression that red velvet cake was born of Southern foodways. That moment was 1989’s Steel Magnolias.
The red velvet armadillo cake brought the ruby red gateau roaring back to popularity. A few short years later, Magnolia Bakery opened in New York City’s West village, and red velvet cakes (and eventually cupcakes) were instant best sellers.
In the early 2000s, you couldn’t pop into a bakery and not see a red velvet offering. In 2013, 4.1 percent of all items on restaurant menus were red velvet inspired, David Sprinkle, a research director at the publisher Packaged Facts told NYT.
Then came the mid-2010s flood of all things red velvet: body mist, candles, perfumes, vodka even. It took nearly a century, but red velvet has a magnificent spin on the spotlight.
Today, as home cooks and professional chefs alike are trying to veer away from artificial dyes and unnecessary ingredients, many are turning back to that WWII hacks, beets, for natural red hues. At Atlanta’s Miller Union, you can order an exceptionally red and elegant red velvet cupcake that’s dyed entirely by beets.
So while Southerners don’t deserve the full credit for the cake’s creation, we’ll still have a slice to a great bit of fun food history.