Red velvet cake’s path from gimmick to marketing craze
Originally popularized as a way to sell more food dye, the red velvet cake is the dessert of the moment, turning up in forms as varied as cupcakes, sundaes and lattes.
The New York Times
In the pantheon of food-related shark jumps, red velvet cake body mist may well be the greatest leap of all.
Red velvet cake, once a reasonably tender, softly flavored culinary gimmick, has become a national commercial obsession, its cocoa undertones and cream-cheese tang re-created in chemical laboratories and infused into all manner of places cake should not exist.
One can buy a red velvet scented candle, red velvet protein powder, red velvet air fresheners and red velvet vodka.
Even in the world of actual food, red velvet has taken over like kudzu.
In San Francisco, where one presumes people know better, the American Cupcake bar and bakery offers chicken that has been soaked in red velvet cake batter, rolled in toasted red velvet cupcake crumbs and fried.
Dunkin’ Donuts sells red velvet lattes. Republic of Tea sells red velvet tea. There are red velvet waffles, Pop-Tarts, whoopie pies and, in a pileup of dessert trends, the red velvet molten cake sundae.
How red velvet cake got its sleeve caught in the American food-merchandising machine and ended up as a scent for bath salts is a cautionary tale for any food that starts out with the best of intentions.
“Why this happened to red velvet is at the core of the culture’s spirit of democracy and innovation,” said the Canadian author David Sax.
Sax writes about American food trends and fads in his new book, “The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up With Fondue.”
“Even if it’s rediscovering something like yogurt or red velvet cupcakes or toast, it’s always about what can we push or innovate,” he said. “It’s just that pure, beautiful American capitalism, which is really uniquely suited to take any sort of advantage you can take and expand on it.”
The red velvet cake, with its artificial coloring and benign cocoa sweetness, has always been about commercialization. But it has honest roots.
Velvet cakes without the coloring are older than Fannie Farmer. Cooks in the 1800s used almond flour, cocoa or cornstarch to soften the protein in flour and make finer-textured cakes that were then, with a Victorian flair, named velvet.
All of this led to the mahogany cake, with its mix of buttermilk, vinegar, cocoa powder and coffee, and its cousin, the devil’s food cake.
By the 1930s, recipes for red devil’s food cake were showing up in West Coast and Midwest newspaper food columns as a Christmas cake.
It had its early critics. “Generally popular,” wrote Irma S. Rombauer in the 1943 edition of “The Joy of Cooking,” “but not with me, which is not to be taken as a criterion.”
But the garish modern red velvet cake, like so many food trends, likely started among the elite.
Erin Allsop, the archivist at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, places the debut of the cake at the Waldorf in the 1930s, though some Southern cake historians believe that story is more legend than fact.
Meanwhile, in Austin, Texas, John A. Adams was getting rich selling vanilla and food dyes. He and his wife ate the cake at the Waldorf, said Sterling Crim, the managing partner and chief marketing officer for the Adams Extract Company.
Crim said that through company histories and interviews with former employees, the company traced the red velvet cake back to that trip to the Waldorf. “That’s the cake that started us down this path.”
After Congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938, shoring up regulations for food coloring, Adams figured he could sell a lot more extracts and dyes, and a red cake would be just the way to do it.
Sometime in the 1940s, the company developed a mahogany cake recipe with food coloring, printed it on cards and began plans to merchandise it alongside bottles of vanilla, red dye and artificial butter flavoring, which was popular when butter was rationed during World War II.
The cake was iced with a roux of milk and flour that was whipped into butter and sugar, creating a stark white, fluffy mixture called ermine or boiled-milk frosting.
Armed with dye and a supermarket recipe, home cooks fanned out in Texas kitchens and beyond.
But it was never the most popular cake in the room. In 1972, James Beard sneered that the cake was bland and uninteresting. Cake and baking experts like Rose Levy Beranbaum did not mention red velvet in their books in the 1980s and 1990s.
Then, driven in part by a cameo as an armadillo groom’s cake in “Steel Magnolias” in 1989 and the arrival of the Magnolia Bakery in the West Village in New York City in 1996, red velvet gained new life.
The cake became a top seller at the bakery, which also turned it into cupcakes. As the nation swung into its post-Sept. 11 comfort-food phase, both cupcakes and Southern food offered solace. Red velvet became a superstar.
Now, Pamela Moxley, the pastry chef at Miller Union in Atlanta, has even perfected a beet red velvet cake. She uses a lot of acid to keep the color bright and balance the taste of roasted beet.
In 2009, red velvet cake flavoring was part of 1.5 percent of all items on menus. By 2013, it was in 4.1 percent of items, according to data gathered by David Sprinkle, research director of Packaged Facts, a publisher.
A key year was 2011, when “red velvet cake flavor emerged as a force of nature,” Sprinkle said. That’s when the body mist made its debut.
For those who just can’t bear one more red velvet product, there is some relief in sight. The number of new products with red velvet in the title is slowing slightly.
Between 2012 and 2013, the number was down to 12 percent, said Marcia Mogelonsky, a director in the food and drink group at Mintel, a global marketing-research company.
“There is a limit to the red-velvetization potentials in different categories,” she said. “Red Velvet wine, for example, is an effort that may not lead to more product launches.”