Between college semesters, I spent a summer working at a historic Italian bakery in Manhattan. We excelled in cannoli, ricotta cheesecake, and pignoli, and offered a selection of sponge cakes that had gone largely unchanged over the decades. That summer of 2007, however, we started getting more customers asking for red velvet cake. “We don’t make it. We’re Italian,” my boss would say as an explanation, increasingly baffled that it was even a question. After all, red velvet was a staple of the American South; why would you expect it in New York Italian bakery?
But a few years later, they put it on the menu, because thousands of demanding customers can’t be wrong. Over the past two decades, red velvet grew from a regional delicacy to national ubiquity, and moving from cake to cupcakes, cookies, lattes, cinnamon rolls, bagels, and anything else that can handle a hefty dose of red food coloring. In the process, it morphed from a moist, rich confection with a bit of novelty to a dense, oversweet and often bitter cake that everyone still insists is their favorite. Can we please admit that red velvet cake, as it’s been commonly adapted and executed across the country, sucks ass?
Red velvet cake has a long history, as Kim Severson chronicled in 2014. It’s a take on a velvet-style cake, which uses cocoa or cornstarch to soften the flour; for red velvet, the addition of buttermilk or vinegar added to its richness, and caused a reaction that created a reddish hue. Though there are some contrary arguments, most believe red velvet cake came about in the 1940s, when war rationing drove bakers to add food coloring or beetroot juice to their cakes to make them even redder and more appealing, and a marketer from the Adams Extract company in Texas began adding a recipe for red velvet to bottles of vanilla in local supermarkets.
“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,” wrote Severson for the New York Times. By the early 2000s, coinciding with the national cupcake boom, it was everywhere. Which would have been fine, except that it became a stand-in for any confection that’s been doused in food-coloring and slathered in cream cheese frosting.
This should not bother me so much. We’re past red velvet’s peak — it’s no longer the flavor of every single wedding cake, so it’s easy enough to avoid. And I’m not even from the South, so this does not feel like the world has ripped a beloved custom from me and tarnished its reputation. (As a New Yorker, I do get to feel that way about red velvet bagels). But the phrase “red velvet” has turned into secondhand for luxury, decadence, and richness, and rarely does it live up to that reputation. Do you know how many dry red velvet cake pops are sitting in mediocre cafes across the country? How many brownies have been corrupted by a dye-bitter swirl? And yet, in Magic Mike XXL, an important artifact of our time, Amber Heard has the audacity to berate Mike (Channing Tatum) over not wanting cake, saying, “It’s fucking red velvet” as if that’s reason enough to gobble it down.
One feature of a world in which you can cross America on a five-hour flight, information can instantaneously reach anyone with an internet connection, and every brand seems like it’s on a mission to expand into every possible market is that there are fewer regional foods that are truly regional. This has its pros and cons. On one hand, it’s great to be able to Google a recipe for something you’ve never eaten and experience it for yourself firsthand. On the other, trends set off a race to the market, regardless of whether or not the market wants or needs it. A bagel place should not have to worry about red velvet. Neither should my Italian bakery. It becomes not about making something good, but making something just to say you have it.
Maybe admitting how bad most red velvet has gotten will inspire people to seek out the good versions that surely exist. Or maybe the next trend will just follow in its footsteps, taking something regional and novel and turning it into buzzwords to slap on anything it vaguely resembles. If that’s the case, I can only hope the next trend involves less food coloring, and that Magic Mike is left to dislike whatever flavors he chooses.