How Red Velvet Cake Got Its Name

Adams Extract
Adams Extract / Adams Extract

For all you red velvet cake lovers out there, I’m about to blow your mind: red velvet cake did not get its name from the bottle of food coloring you dump into the batter. I know. Contain yourself. Here’s what really happened.

During the Great Depression, families were using less food colorings and extracts. They were just one more unnecessary expense that could be cut out. While the savings was good news for penny-pinchers, it was not-so-great news for the Adams Extract company. To counter slumping sales, folks at the company came up with the Adams Red Velvet Cake recipe, a concoction that used red food coloring and butter extract instead of the traditional ingredients. Before food coloring become the popular way to make the cake scarlet, the hue was much more subtle and was caused by the way vinegar, cocoa, and buttermilk reacted together. The “velvet” comes not from the color of crushed velvet, but from the smooth texture of fine cake crumb.

Adams’ ploy worked. The new brilliantly-colored cake was a hit with households across the country, and the fact that the recipe was offered on free recipe cards at grocery stores everywhere didn’t hurt either. So, there you have it: the popularity of red velvet cake is the result of a clever marketing ploy. And who can resist that tagline of a bygone era: "The cake of a wife time."

One (incorrect) take on the invention of the red velvet cake is that the Waldorf Astoria Hotel created it in the 1920s and graciously provided the recipe when a customer asked. She later received a bill in the mail for $350, prompting her to distribute the recipe to anyone who would take it. Sounds awfully similar to the Neiman Marcus cookie, doesn’t it?