A little over eighteen months ago, I undertook a crazy person's assignment: I set out to find the Best Red Velvet Cake in America. I began tasting cakes everywhere from Seattle to Springfield to Santa Fe. And I began working on a list of criteria for judgment: something a little more refined than my normal "yum" scale. I contacted a lot of chefs, bakers, bakery managers, and various Red Velvet experts (aka: mom and her friends) in order to develop a list of qualities to assess. Sadly, for me, their answers were so wide and varied as to what was most essential to an ideal Red Velvet, I began longing for the "yum" scale. How could all these things matter -- and matter so much: The benefits of using cherries versus beet juice, the amount of red food coloring, the precise ratio of buttermilk to sugar to vinegar. I have baked (and eaten) my fair share of cakes, but I was learning quickly that Red Velvets were not an eye-it type of operation. James Beard's American Cookery references three distinct types of Red Velvets. And don't get a Red Velvet baker started on the complications of frosting. I can now write, with full confidence, a thesis paper on the advantage of cream-cheese frosting over a pure butter icing; and one on why a butter icing is more authentic than its sugary-vanilla counterpart.
But perhaps I should first explain what has spurred this mission. In my latest novel, The Divorce Party, Red Velvet Cake plays a pivotal role. The novel focuses on a family on the Eastern end of Long Island -- who have lived in the beautiful town of Montauk for generations -- and who now are struggling to hold themselves (and their home) together during a defining weekend, in which the oldest son brings his fiancée to visit for the first time. An unconventional party is at the center of the weekend. And, at the center of the party, is one pristine and delicious Red Velvet Cake.
But people's passion for the cake has shown me that I can't think about the cake as just part of The Divorce Party's story. In my search for The Best Red Velvet, I've learned that this cake has it's own story . . . and it is an emotional one.
There is an urban legend that, mid-century, a baker at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel baked the very first Red Velvet Cake. According to the legend, a customer at the restaurant requested the recipe for the unique cake, and was billed hundreds of dollars. In retribution, she spread the recipe to all of her friends. It is a charming story, but a legend from start to finish. The real history of the cake's origin seems to begin somewhere in the 1920s in the American South. Exactly who was responsible? That is still a matter of debate. And all versions I've heard are full of emotion. My favorite -- and the one I utilized in my novel -- revolves around a Southern baker who wanted to create a cake that symbolized the contrast between good and evil: the good represented by the lily, white frosting, the evil represented by the red cake. She wanted to make a cake that would have an emotional impact on those who ate it, even if they didn't completely understand why.
And while I'm afraid to name a current front-runner in my own search, I will say that I keep that first baker in mind as I try different options: like the wonderful piece of Red Velvet I recently ate at a quaint restaurant in the Eagle Rock section of Los Angeles called Auntie Em's Kitchen.
Can I tell you why I enjoyed it so much? Maybe not. But I'm working on it. And I promise it's not just a yum thing. It's an emotional one.