Welcome to our third instalment of Bite Me, a series featuring essays from some of our favourite writers and cultural icons on one of our site's most popular topics: food. More specifically, we'll hear about their unlikely food obsessions, controversial food beliefs, and weird food hang-ups. Next up, Ashley C. Ford delivers the ultimate red velvet takedown.
Baking was an integral part of my childhood, and perhaps, the only real relaxing hobby I maintain as an adult. Even though I have high blood sugar, and try to avoid sweets, every once in awhile I allow myself a really nice cupcake, or a particularly fancy piece of cake. I look forward to these moments for days, weeks, and sometimes even months at a time. Because I’m supposed to be so particular about when I consume sugar and how much sugar I have, I often deny myself up until the treat is attached to a special outing, or a celebration. It makes the cake special. Until someone shows up with a red velvet cake or cupcake and ruins everything. That is why I’m here today, not to convince you to bake more, or eat less sugar. I’m here to expose a fraud; The “flavour” red velvet.
For most of my life, I’ve loved baking. It began with my grandmother who delighted in teaching me the recipes she’d memorised over the years. We made pineapple upside-down cake, and apple pie, and bread pudding, and strawberry shortcakes (my favourite), and if I followed her lead exactly, they came out right every time. Yes, I have many glowing memories of being bossed around my grandmother’s kitchen, then casually calling my cousins to let them know about whatever sweet treat we’d whipped out, so they could convince their moms and dads to bring them over and partake.
Over the next hour, my grandmother’s home would fill with her children and grandchildren. Some of them would bring friends. The warm brown sugar and buttery smells would waft from the kitchen all the way to the other end of the house. The kids would all be in one room, making up games, and complaining about our parents who might have told us that seconds were reasonable but thirds were not. I felt so much pride watching everyone moan over food I’d had a hand in making. My grandmother didn’t have fancy bakeware, or mixing tools. We did it all by hand. It was worth it for the time spent together, and for the mouthwatering treats we devoured.
My grandmother could make damn near anything under the sun, and she could make it well. But there was one thing she never made. Can you guess? Yep, it’s red velvet cake. I saw the “flavour” behind glass in bakery windows, and even remembered its notable moment in the movie Steel Magnolias, so I was curious. I asked my grandmother why she never made red velvet cake, since we seemed to make every other type of cake. She twisted up her face like I asked her why there wasn’t a White History Month. She said, “If you want some of that old nasty cake, you can make it with your mama.” I closed my mouth and continued mashing a bowl of sweet potatoes for our soufflé. But I was still curious.
When a girl in my fourth grade class brought in an assortment of cupcakes for her birthday, I chose red velvet. My teacher sat the cupcake on my desk, and instructed all of us not to eat them until every person had one. I sat patiently. My time had come. What were a few more minutes? Once we got the go ahead, I reverently peeled back the paper surrounding the bottom of my cupcake. Then, I licked the delicious buttercream frosting from my fingers. Finally, I took a healthy, but not greedy, bite. At first, all I tasted was sugar, and that was enough. Then, I tasted something else. What was that? It was sweet, but also…metallic? Acidic? In any event, I didn’t like it. In fact, I opened my mouth and let the mostly chewed up cupcake fall back into the wrapper like the trash it had revealed itself to be. My teacher walked quickly over to me with worry in her eyes.
“Ashley, are you sick?”
I nodded my head yes, because I was too embarrassed to say otherwise. I felt fine, aside from the horrid taste in my mouth, but I had selected that cupcake so excitedly, so confidently, I couldn’t admit that I’d chosen wrong. I lamented wasting my birthday treat. Why hadn’t I picked chocolate? Dear God, I could have even picked vanilla! Why, oh, why had I picked this blood-tinged monstrosity? My teacher sent me to the nurse where I faked a stomachache and was able to remain for the rest of the school day.
You may be thinking, Ashley, you were a child. Kids' palates change. Maybe your more sophisticated adult taste buds would enjoy the “flavour” red velvet. WRONG. There are a ton of delicious things I eschewed as a child that I’d devour in a heartbeat today. Foods like tomatoes, and Brussels sprouts, and meat on pizza are all things I dig now that I definitely did not dig as a child. Because I like to keep an open mind, I have tried red velvet desserts in multiple forms over the years. I’ve tried red velvet ice cream, pancakes, cheesecake, milkshakes, with whipped cream, or with cream cheese frosting. I’ve tried it all, and each time I spend the moment after the first bite or sip mentally whipping myself for being so gullible. When will enough be enough? my palate asks me. Well, happy day! I’ve had enough. Don’t tell me I’d like your nana’s red velvet whatever, because I won’t. Sorry, Nana. It ain’t happening. I’m not falling for the okie doke again.
Here are the arguments I’m not trying to hear:
1) It’s just chocolate cake with red dye, so if you like chocolate cake you, you should like red velvet cake.
NOPE. I’ve heard of people putting five — FIVE — bottles of red food colouring in a red velvet cake. I don’t care what the FDA says, at that point, it sounds, and tastes, like I’m eating more chemical colour than cake. Is nobody else worried about this? Chocolate cake is made with cocoa, vanilla with vanilla bean, lemon with actual lemons, but there is no red velvet bean is there? No. There isn’t.
2) Well, some people don’t use food dye, they use beet juice.
Sounds cute, but I don’t want my chocolate cake to taste like beets either.
3) BUT THE CREAM CHEESE FROSTING!
Put cream cheese frosting on literally any other flavour of cake for similar, or exactly the same results. The deliciousness of a cake can not be solely dependent on the flavour of frosting.
A person with garbage taste buds will always defend the merits of this ruined chocolate cake, and there is literally nothing to be done about them. Everyone’s on their own journey. That’s fine. But I will always choose the path with the least amount of red velvet anything. And you can too. Free yourself from the fraud.