Painting the Roses Red: A Not So Certain History of Red Velvet Cake

A blue chocolate chip cookie would be suspect and a magenta crème brulée might raise a few eyebrows, but somehow bright red cake slipped under the radar.  Red Velvet season is upon us and somehow, this sanguine stuff has become the popular norm.  Everywhere, as we speak, bakers are dumping entire bottles of food dye into chocolate cake.  Why?  What is appetizing about eating a blood red colored cake? When did we loose sight that this behavior is objectively bizarre? Where did all the insanity begin?


Well, the question of human folly is not easily answered.  Apparently, neither are the origins of Red Velvet cake.


Although, I’ve found several conflicting theories, the most common is that “Devil’s Food,” and Red Velvet cake once referred to the same thing.  Before cocoa powder was “dutched,” (A chemical process that neutralizes cocoa powder, which is naturally very acidic, giving it a darker color and more mellow flavor), the very acidic cocoa powder reacted chemically with the baking soda to reveal a subtle, naturally red hue in the final product.   Today, in almost all Red Velvet recipes you will still find an acid, such as vinegar or buttermilk, which enhances that red pigment in the cocoa.

Therefore, the “Devil,” in Devil’s Food, did simply refer to the sinful quality of the cake, but at one time, also alluded to the cake’s mysteriously reddish hue.   When dutch-processed cocoa powder became more popular, bakers compensated with dye or beet juice, achieving a more exaggerated result.


At this point, I like to imagine a young apprentice being handed a chocolate cake recipe for the first time.  A shipment of ingredients has just come in and the bakery has recently switched cocoa powder brands to one of the latest products from Europe (Dutched).  The young baker carefully follows the recipe, but in the end, the cake doesn’t look right at all.  It’s dark and brown, without a hint of that signature “Devil’s Food,” reddishness.  In a moment of panic, he quickly mixes another batch, this time adding beet juice to ensure that the color will be right and that hopefully no one will notice.


Like the scene from Alice in Wonderland when Alice finds a deck of cards painting white roses red to hide their mistake from the volatile and violent Red Queen, the apprentice covers a perfectly good, and perhaps beautiful, product with unnecessary, artificial coloring.


“Why Miss, the fact is, this ought to have been a red rose tree, and we put a white one in by mistake, and if the Queen was to find it out, we should all have our heads cut off.”

-Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


Some say Red Velvet cake (as we know it today…with lots of red food dye) was first served at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel in the 20’s.  Others claim that it has southern roots and its modern-day popularity can be attributed to the 1989 film, “Steel Magnolias,” in which a Red Velvet armadillo-shaped groom’s cake served.


One thing is for certain; no matter where Red Velvet cake came from, or why, today it is everywhere.  Especially, with Valentine’s Day approaching, people go nuts over these dyed-red, cream cheese frosted, chocolate cakes.  And while I still believe they are objectively absurd (and consuming food dye by the cup-full is probably not advisable), they are admittedly fun.



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5 responses to “Painting the Roses Red: A Not So Certain History of Red Velvet Cake

  1. I once got a cake order that specified MINIMUM red icing on the cake for decorations because they did not like the taste of red dye. But they insisted that the inside flavor of the cake be red velvet. And without the cream cheese frosting. :/ ?! Mind blowing.

  2. Marissa Sertich: Dessertation

    hahahaha…that is amazing. Did they not what what red velvet cake had in it?? Weird. People are very weird.

    • Red velvet is a huge question mark, that’s for sure!

      I wonder if most people think they can’t get cream cheese icing on a chocolate cake? So they think they have to order red velvet to get at the frosting part?? That’s my “nice” theory. My “mean” theory is that people are slaves to trends and they would want to eat banana peels if that was “in.”


  3. Rachelle

    I love your Alice analogy! (no surprise, I know…)
    Thought of you while viewing Captain EO in EPCOT
    the other day bc I realized the entire thing is an abbreviated Wizard of Oz re-telling! Classics endure. 🙂

  4. Red Velvet is such a tricky thing. As much as I want to hate it, I still like the novelty of a red colored cake…

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