The year 2015 is perhaps a little late for the launch of Red Velvet Oreos, a limited-edition, Valentine’s Day version of the world’s favorite cookie. Red velvet (the flavor, not the classic style of cake that inspired it) is at this point neither retro nor innovative. In fact, it’s starting to look as trite as pumpkin spice—but without the deliciously pungent, emotionally powerful aroma. Here’s how red velvet became the flavor of the moment, and why it’s already starting to look overdone.
Red velvet cake doesn’t have a distinct taste—its signatures are its color and texture. The original recipe for a white-frosted cake made with buttermilk, vinegar, and cocoa pre-dates the widespread use of artificial food coloring. Whether the cake was called “red” because of the hue produced by a chemical reaction between its ingredients or because it included brown sugar, which was once called red sugar, is an open question. What there is no doubt about is the unique texture of the cake, hence the “velvet” moniker.
It was modestly popular in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, but not a wide favorite during the rest of the 20th century, according to the New York Times. The Times credits the modern red velvet cake’s resurgence to its being featured by two Magnolias: Steel Magnolias, the 1989 film starring Julia Roberts, and Magnolia Bakery, which opened in Manhattan in 1996 and remains wildly popular. Red velvet cakes steadily became the thing to order, at bakeries around the US.
We’re only just emerging from peak cupcake here, and it’s cupcake shops that had the most fun with red velvet. A lot of red velvet’s appeal is visual, but red velvet cupcake batter doesn’t exist just for the sake of being flashy. It actually provides the taste and mouthfeel of the classic full-size cake, but in a smaller package. And it has been a fabulous seller.
“The red velvet cupcake trend is what really ignited this new trend” of red velvet everything, says Megan West, a recipe developer for ConAgra Foods.
Once red velvet was made recognizable by the cupcake boom, consumers became ”excited to see it used in new ways like ice cream, pancakes and even beverages,” says West. “The same is true for many other flavors and ingredients that take off as trends, like pumpkin or peppermint; they lend to pushing the boundaries on flavors we already love.”
And woah, did those boundaries get pushed! Red velvet pancakes and waffles are one thing, but red velvet protein powder? See also: red velvet tea, red velvet wine, red velvet beer, red velvet Pop-Tarts, a Red Velvet Latté drink at Dunkin’ Donuts, and of course the aforementioned Oreos.
West says ConAgra first noticed the red velvet flavor trend “creep up,” in the packaged foods space, during the holiday season in 2010. Soon it developed all the makings of a craze. “While it has always peaked at Christmas and Valentine’s Day, you can actually see the volume in conversation pick up in 2011,” says West. By the spring of 2014, she says, red velvet was “exploding.”
The New York Times and others have reported that red velvet cake was a traditional Christmas dessert for some families in the American South, but if the Oreo advertising team does its job well, from now on red velvet may well be synonymous with Valentine’s Day.