Best Served Cold: Red Velvet Retribution is a Sweet American Legend


Back in the mid-1990s, when I was working on the manuscript for my first book, Chicago Haunts, I found myself deep in the work of folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand.  I had been doing research into the phenomenon of the "vanishing hitch-hiker" legend since (as you may well know) we have one of the most famous of these nocturnal travelers in our Chicago ghostlore, by the name of Resurrection Mary (our Vanishing Hitch-hiker perfume is, in fact, named for her).

I was intrigued to find many encounters with these inexplicable entities detailed in Brunvand's book, The Vanishing Hitchhiker and Other Urban Legends. The book also delved into the legends of "The Hook" and "The Boyfriend's Death"--both grisly legends that I was already well-acquainted with from my ghost hunting days at Bachelors Grove Cemetery--a place where both of these legends have been localized.

As I read on through the book, though, I discovered some new urban legends I had never heard of before, and it was here that I first read about the now famous Red Velvet Cake--which at the time of my first reading was still largely unknown to most Northerners like me, though the cake had long held an honored place in Southern culinary life, of which more in a minute.

I'll get to the legend in a minute, too, but first--in case you've been living in a hermitage the past twenty years--a bit about what this cake actually is. There are many names for it, including “Red Waldorf Cake”, “Red Carpet Cake”, and “Flame Cake”, but it is "Red Velvet Cake" which has stuck.

The mysteries surrounding the cake are endless. Not only are most people confused as to where the red hue of the cake comes from, but no one--that's right. NO ONE--actually knows the true origins of the recipe or how it became introduced as a mainstream favorite.

What is Red Velvet Cake?

Velvet cakes date back to the Victorian Era. The term ‘velvet’ referred to the type of cake--a light, soft confection--as denser cakes, such as pound cakes and sponge cakes, were common at the time. These velvet cakes were considered a luxury item, often served for dessert at upscale dinner parties and special occasions.

Cocoa powder became an important ingredient in what became known as the red velvet cake. Not only does the cocoa powder help to break down the flour, but it also plays an important role in a chemical reaction which originally gave the red velvet cake its name. The combination of non-Dutch process cocoa and buttermilk reacts to create a reddish tint.

This reaction may be the true source of the original coloring of the cake, but through the decades, as the recipe has grown in popularity, the red tint to the cake has become more vibrant through the use of additive colorings. This more stark coloring may be a result of wartime recipes in which rations demanded bakers be resourceful. As a result, many bakers began adding beet juice to the recipe, and today some formulations still call for this ingredient. Not only do beets make the cake bright, but the juice also acts to soften the cake and prevent it from drying out.

Today, cocoa that is commonly bought in the grocery store is Dutch process cocoa. This is different from that originally used by bakers during the Victorian Era. The processing of the cocoa reduces much of the natural acidity of the powder and so drastically reduces the reaction between the powder and the buttermilk, preventing the famous reddish hue from coming across. Now it is almost unheard of to find a red velvet cake that doesn't incorporate either beet juice or red food colorings.

An American Urban Legend Emerges

Though the origin of the coloring is still up for debate, the real mystery of the red velvet cake is: who invented it? There are many who claim credit for the creation of the red velvet cake; however, the predominantly agreed upon source is the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City.

The Waldorf-Astoria opened in the 1920s on Park Avenue and is said to have christened the red wonder as the ‘Waldorf-Astoria Cake’.

The popularity of the Waldorf-Astoria Cake grew as guests marveled over the stark appearance--and delicious flavor and texture--of the red cake they were served in the hotel dining room, but (at least according to the urban legend) the recipe was kept a secret by the chef. 

Then, one afternoon a young woman dined at the hotel and, like so many before her, swooned over the bright red cake placed before her.  She asked the waiter to see the chef who had baked it, and a few minutes later the head chef arrived at her table. The woman praised the cake with lavish adjectives and then asked the baker of it if she might have the recipe to recreate at home. With a sly smile, the chef said, "But of course!' 

The girl provided him with her address--somewhere in the American South--and she and her companion finished their meal and continued their sightseeing, returning home the following week.

Going through her mail, the young woman was delighted to find a beautiful envelope from the Waldorf Astoria.  Delighted that the chef had made good on his promise, she tore the envelope open, already planning to astound her friends with the cake at a dinner party that weekend.

Inside the envelope she found the recipe.  Written by hand on hotel stationery, it included all of the ingredients and directions for preparation.  At the end of the letter the chef had written "Enjoy!"  and added his initials.

But there was something else in the envelope.  Another piece of folded paper had been tucked inside, behind the recipe, and the young woman, curious, now fished it out and unfolded it.

It was a bill.

The hotel chef had sent the recipe all right. But with it he had included an invoice for $250.

The young woman was appalled, and she immediately called the hotel to express her rage at the chef's gall--but he refused to take her calls. She sent back the recipe, along with a strongly-worded note of her own (presumably telling the chef what he could do with his recipe). But a week later the recipe came back, along with another note letting her know it was too late to return it. She had already seen the secret recipe, and the deal was done.

Refusing to pay, the woman was soon forced to hire an attorney to keep collection agents away.  She lost her case and, in frustration, wrote out the check for $250.

As soon as she sealed the envelope, she typed a letter to her city's newspaper editor. Both envelopes went out in the afternoon mail.

In the letter she told the editor of how she had enjoyed this mysterious and beautiful--and delicious--cake on her trip to New York.  And of how the baker of it had duped her into shelling out $250 for the recipe.  She asked the editor to print the recipe--and to ask readers to share it with as many people as possible.

He did.

They say this is how the red velvet cake became an overnight sensation throughout the American South--and soon the entire nation.

But though most initially shared the recipe in support of the Southern woman who had been taken advantage of by a slick New York chef, many actually made this strange red cake . . . and discovered how good it really was.

The Waldorf Astoria has gone on record numerous to debunk the story, and the hotel has given out reportedly countless copies of the recipe to prove it never happened. Hotel representatives have repeatedly said they are delighted to share their restaurant's beloved recipes with whoever asks for them.  But is this all damage control?

Who knows? 

So far, no one has ever found a "letter to the editor" in any Southern newspaper archives to match the one supposedly sent by the duped woman.  And no one has ever identified the evil chef who supposedly took the poor Southern girl to court over payment for his recipe.

But There's More!

The legend doesn't start and stop at the Waldorf-Astoria, however. In fact, there have been several other claims about the origins of the red velvet cake, most notably the Adams Extract company, the Eaton Department Store, and legendary Joy of Cooking author, Irma S. Rombauer.  

The Adam Extract company was founded by John and Betty Adams, a Texas couple who, legend has it, stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and tasted the famous red “Waldorf-Astoria cake" as it was then known.  When they got back to their home in Texas, John Adams passed around a recipe for the cake, claiming it was his wife, Betty’s, recipe.  Unlike the Waldorf-Astoria cake, however, which got its more subtle red color from a chemical reaction, "Betty's" cake got its color from--you guessed it-- red food coloring.

The marketing tactic to sell their food coloring was painfully obvious--but also immensely successful.  John and Betty's sales skyrocketed, and the cake's fame grew along with the piles of money the Adamses were raking in.

Far north of the Adams' factory in Texas, Eaton’s Department Store in Canada has also been credited with originating the red velvet cake. Around the same time as the “Waldorf-Astoria Cake” was developing its reputation, Eaton’s Department Store began selling their own red cake in its restaurant, crediting Lady Eaton with creating the recipe. Some believe it was "great minds" who created similar cakes at the same time, while others wonder if the Waldorf-Astoria's chef sampled this cake on a visit to Canada and began serving it back in his own dining room in New York.

While it will likely never be known who invented the legendary red velvet cake,  the recipe's first known publication was in The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer in 1943, bringing it out of the restaurant kitchens and into American households.  Where Rombauer got the recipe--or whether she created it herself--is anyone's guess, like most of the facts surrounding this infamous cake.

Red Velvet Cake Today

One thing about the  red velvet cake that can't be disputed is that it is tied to the American South. This association is not only a result of its popularity throughout the region--whatever its origins--but also because of the use of the ingredient buttermilk, a Southern baking staple. The deliberate marketing of the Adams Extract company was likely another contributor to the Southern association. Many Southerners still claim the cake as their own, labeling their recipes as ‘Southern Red Velvet Cake” and including it as a staple in bakeries, on menus and in cookbooks..

The cake's distinctive flavor profile--a blend of subtle cocoa, vanilla, buttermilk and (usually) cream cheese frosting--has taken its place, too, as a now-beloved flavor of cupcakes, ice cream, frozen yogurt, cookies and candies.  Even its scent has taken its place among other sought-after gourmand smells, lending its iconic aroma to candles, room fresheners, soaps and--now--our new Red Velvet Cake niche perfume.

A Sweetly Mysterious Scent

In creating this scent, I wasn't  aiming to replicate the scent of the cake, as candle and soap makers usually do.  Rather, I used the legend of the red velvet cake as inspiration for the unique profile that emerged.

So you'll find in this fragrance a note of hotel linen--evoking the crisp tablecloths of the Waldof Astoria, where that luncheon of legend happened (or did it?) so many years ago.  You'll notice the distinctive smell of chocolate cake, yes, but also a spicy note of red saffron, such a great complement to chocolate, as is the hint of rose I've also included.  Originally, the base note was coffee, but I found it overpowered the more subtle floral and linen notes, so I experimented with other bases. One whiff of the sandalwood-based formula, and I knew this was it.

It was so much fun creating this fragrance, one with such a different inspiration than most of our perfumes so far. I hope you find it a welcome addition to our Urban Legends collection--and to your own niche perfume bar.

Thanks for opening this bottle with me!

Happy Legend Tripping,



Place any order this week (until 9/15/22) and get a free 5 ml rollerball of Red Velvet Cake!  No code needed. Enjoy!




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