It’s under such headings that recipes for red velvet cake have been spread for decades. You’ve come across similar stories I think. A customer sits down at an expensive restaurant or in a famous hotel dining room. He/she likes the (INSERT FOOD ITEM) so much that he/she asks for the recipe. The waiter is happy to oblige. He returns moments later with the recipe, hand written by chef. Then the shock comes: the bill. On it is a “recipe surcharge” for (INSERT LARGE AMOUNT OF MONEY). Incensed, particularly because the recipe’s secret turns out to be nothing more than (INSERT SIMPLE TRICK), the customer pays the exorbitant bill, vowing to shout the secret to the four winds and punish (INSERT ESTABLISHMENT) forever. And here is the super-secret recipe!
These sorts of urban myths are as old as the hills in America, dating back to the very early decades of the 20th century. Recipes for all manner of sweets, soups and savory dishes have been spread using this essential formula, and have oftentimes fooled newspaper and magazine editors. That said, red velvet cake is the all-time most successful iteration of the ticked-off diner myth (with the possible exception of the Mrs. Field’s Cookie version that emerged in the 80’s). It first popped up in print in the early 60’s and made the rounds for many a moon. The patron was, as always, a Mr. or Mrs. X, but the venue was consistently the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.
Why the Waldorf Astoria? Maybe because it was well known as one of country’s premier hotels at a time when grand hotels were still centers of American culture, places where the famous and the well-to-do met and mingled. One could well imagine red velvet cake in that setting, with its regal, snow-white frosting and scarlet interior, evocative of the rich red carpets and drapes of a first class establishment like the Waldorf. It may be for that very reason that the myth resonated so well and was passed on so faithfully for so long.
That’s all speculative of course. What is known is that the Waldorf unsuccessfully fought the myth for decades, from the 50’s through the 60’s, 70’s and — wearily — straight through to 2006. That was the year that management finally adopted a “if you can’t beat’em, join’em” attitude and published a recipe for red velvet cake in The Waldorf Astoria Cookbook. Because when the dessert-eating public has made up its mind about the truth…what’s the use in arguing?