Here's the truth that Parks uncovered: it was never about the red. It was about the velvet.
She says that back in the late 1800's, "Velvet had simply come to denote any cake with an especially fine crumb." It became Red Velvet Cake only because the dessert was made with red (a.k.a. brown) sugar. And, yes, a reaction between the cocoa powder and acids in the recipe gave the cake a bit of a reddish hue.
The value of the "red" over the "velvet" didn't come along until the Great Depression when Adams Extract Company attempted to boost sales by marketing their red food coloring along with a free recipe for Red Velvet Cake. Apparently, we Americans have always been suckers for the shiny and new - and brilliantly dyed. The rest is, of course, history.
Ok, maybe this wasn't a conspiracy. Nor was the truth exactly "sordid." But it is a little...deflating to realize that cooks were never that concerned with the red color of their cakes until food coloring was invented. After all of our various attempts to create an "original" Red Velvet Cake with beets, pomegranate juice, and other naturally red foods, this was never really what mattered.
Never mind, says Parks. The real Red Velvet Cake, "a cocoa cake with a warm, molasses-like sweetness," was much better than what it's come to be. She has created her own version of the original for us to enjoy, updated for our modern palates and made satisfyingly red with her very own secret ingredient.
(Image: Sarah Jane Sanders/Gilt Taste)