Red Velvet Cake

When my brother got engaged and our family invited his fiance's family over for dinner, my mom made red velvet cake - from a mix. I started idly wondering about what red velvet cake is supposed to be. I've done some research and have developed a theory. Any further evidence is always appreciated:

James Beard's book American Cookery describes three kinds of red velvet cake varying in the amounts of shortening and butter used. All of them use red dye for the color, but it is mentioned that the reaction of acidic vinegar and buttermilk tends to turn the cocoa a reddish brown color. Furthermore, this article states that before the availability of more alkaline "Dutch processed" cocoa, this reddish tint was more pronounced. It cites that tint as the source of the Americanism "Devil's Food" for cocoa-flavored cakes. Apparently "Red Velvet" was merely another term for Devil's Food. The site lists several variations: Demon Cake (Hershey) - 1934; Real Red Devils Food - 1945; Satan Cake - 1930’s; Mahogany Cake (no date); Red Velvet Cake (no date); and Oxblood Cake (no date).

The use of red dye to make "Red Velvet" cake was probably started after the introduction of the more alkaline cocoa in order to reproduce the earlier color. It is also notable that while foods were rationed during the second World War, some bakers used boiled beets to enhance the color of cakes - and boiled grated beets or beet baby food is still found in some red velvet cake recipes. Red velvet cakes seemed to find a home in the south and reached peak popularity in the 1950's - just before it was determined that red food dye was a carcinogen. The resurgence of this cake might partly be attributed to the film "Steel Magnolias" in which the groom's cake (another southern tradition) is a red velvet cake in the shape of an armadillo.

The history of red velvet cakes is, perhaps mistakenly, attached to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York. An early version of the infamous "Neiman Marcus cookie" legend has it that a woman asked for the recipe to the delicious red velvet cake she was served at the hotel restaurant, only to find that she had been billed $100 (or $250 or $250) for the recipe. Indignant, she spread it to all her friends as a chain letter. This genre of legend dates to at least the 1940's as a $25 Fudge Cake served to a passenger on a railroad during the days of elegant rail travel. The association with the Waldorf is doubtless merely a jab at a pretentious institution, much like Nieman Marcus (which never sold chocolate chip cookies until everybody started coming in to ask about them).

In a poorly researched article on the Beard Foundation website (without any reference to Beard's own reference book) a representative for the Waldorf says that they don't have anything in their archives indicating that they served any red velvet cake in the 40's or 50's, but that they gladly accept credit for inventing it. My theory is that it was never "invented," but only became distinguished from generic chocolate cake by ambitious bakers determined to preserve the red color of old-style "Devil's Food." Red velvet cakes are now culturally associated with southern food and with soul food. (A much-reproduced recipe from a cookbook published by the National Association for Negro Women is about as authoritative as one can find). Therefore I reject the Waldorf's claim to this cake and put credit back in the hands of our fore-mothers where it belongs.

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