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Dorothy's Red Velvet Cake

by Julie Jeffery Manwarren

This is a work of fiction.

© Copyright by Julie Jeffery Manwarren, 2019. All rights reserved.

In the spring of 1940 I entered the kitchen to find my mother, Dorothy Jane Wilkes, staring at the sparse ingredients in her cupboards. I knew she didn’t have a pound of flour on hand.

“You’ll have to work your magic, Mama,” I said.

Picture accessed on

She always found a way to whip up something out of nothing. Granny would have chided her for trying to serve something as frivolous as cake. But Dorothy Jane would be darned if her guests weren’t served up a sweet morsel with their tea. She eyed the last of her rationed cocoa. I left her as she carefully measured it with the last of our sugar.

Mama told me later that she knew there hadn’t been enough cocoa for a true chocolate cake. She tasted that first batch of batter with much trepidation. It wasn’t bitter she said, but a little bland.

“It was as though the cake were considering being chocolate, but shy about it,” she'd mused.

Mama had said a prayer and added vanilla liquor to give the flavor a boost. I entered the kitchen as mama whisked the strange looking batter.

“That doesn’t look like chocolate cake.” I pointed accusingly at the brownish-red concoction.

“It’s a new cake, Marjorie.” Mama declared with false confidence.

I squinted at the depressed looking substance. “It’s the worst color. Is that red?”

“I suppose it has red hue,” Mama sighed. “I used less cocoa. Let’s just say I meant it to be a light cocoa cake.

“The batter’s a little stiff. I’m afraid it will be dry,” she added woefully.

I was wary but offered, “You could use pureed beets, like you did for the cake a few months ago. That would help add moisture.”

Beets were added and soon the batter was a vibrant shade of red. It baked up beautifully in the oven. Mama created a simple boiled frosting and set the strange red cake on a pedestal stand. Hours later, she served it with tea and her guests declared it was delicious. When they asked her what flavor the cake was she stammered for a moment before declaring it was “Red Chocolate Sponge Cake.”

That name changed after John A. Adams came through town selling his food coloring extracts. Mr. Adams stayed at our boarding house. John Adams was a flamboyant man with big ideas who thought he knew everything. I didn’t care for him much. He stated that names were just as important as product. “Miss Dorothy, how did you get the red for this here cake?” he asked as he helped himself to another slice. Upon hearing that it was beet juice, he convinced Mama to alter her recipe to include his red extract and promptly sold her three bottles. That was my roller skating money so I wasn’t pleased. Mr. Adams also urged her to change the name to velvet cake since, according to him, it was in fashion to call layered sponge cakes, velvet cakes. Mama wasn’t very fashionable and chuckled as she thought about a cake with such a humble start having ‘velvet’ in its name.

Later John A. Adams published my mama’s Red Velvet Cake recipe but claimed it was his wife’s. I was furious and begged Mama to protest and get the credit. She refused, stating that Adam’s red food coloring extract and extravagant name had elevated her cake.

Picture source; Adams Extract Company, accessed at

Sometime later the town was buzzing with the news that Eugene Scanlan, famed chef of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, would be passing through.

Mama set the table with her best china and I came to help since I had never met a person from New York City. Chef Scanlan was austere and withdrawn, not at all like I imagined New Yorkers to be. That is, until he took a bite of Mama’s Red Velvet cake.

“Madam, what is this cake?”

Mama, replied meekly “Sir, it is my own recipe. I call it Red Velvet cake.”

Chef Scanlan took another bite, staring straight ahead, his jaw moving slowly.

“I taste cocoa, but it isn’t quite a chocolate cake, now is it?”


“You’ve added vanilla liquor?”

“Yes.” Mama swallowed hard, and I held my breath. Both of us wondering how two bites of her cake could reveal so many of its secrets.

“It is exquisite. The layers of flavor are quite unique.”

I exhaled as Mama stared at the chef in disbelief.

She didn’t hesitate to give Chef Scanlan the recipe and was pleased as could be to tell future guests that a New York City chef had highly praised her Red Velvet cake.

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Many years passed. Mama closed up her boarding house. One afternoon I was visiting Mama when her neighbor Millie brought over a magazine with the Red Velvet Recipe printed inside. The title read “Waldorf Astoria famed Red Velvet Cake” with a subtitle “Enjoy this $300 cake recipe!”

As I read the article out loud to mama we discovered that some foolish woman had visited the Waldorf Astoria hotel and tasted the red velvet cake. The woman begged the New York hotel mercilessly for the recipe, even offering to pay for it. The Waldorf finally sent along the recipe with a bill for $300.

Mama gasped “$300!!? For a recipe?”

I read on. The woman who received the recipe was also shocked to find a bill for $300. She contacted the Waldorf Astoria and complained. “I was not told there would be such a large charge!” She protested but was told that she should have inquired about that before asking that the recipe be mailed to her. She sought advice from a lawyer but was told that she had no case and woefully paid the bill. She soon came up with her own way to find justice.

She gave out the recipe to anyone and everyone who asked and is having it printed far and wide.

“Apparently, even to magazines like this one!” I exclaimed holding the article in my hand.

“They should have paid YOU that $300, Dorothy.” Millie stated emphatically.

Dorothy smiled and shook her head. Remembering her cake’s humble beginnings, born out of a lack of ingredients, she shook with laughter. “Can you imagine how much cocoa and flour and sugar I could buy with $300?”

Long after my mama, Dorothy Jane Wilkes passed away, I was contacted by a lawyer from New York City. “We’ve been searching for your mother for years. There is something my client intended for her. Since she is deceased, it will go to you.” I soon discovered that she was to receive $300 from the estate of Chef Eugene Scanlan. The lawyer explained over the phone that years before, Chef Scanlan had hesitated to give it out the recipe to the woman from the magazine article. But the Waldorf Astoria management felt this was an opportunity to capitalize and sent out the recipe along with the bill for $300. This troubled Eugene Scanlon since he had paid nothing more than a compliment for the recipe from a hospitable, poor Southern woman decades earlier.

The check arrived one week later. It came in an envelope with a faded recipe card that bore the red velvet cake recipe in my mama’s hand writing.

There was also a note that read

“Thank You. I have never forgotten your hospitality or your red cake.” - E. F. Scanlan.

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