by jennifer lynne latham
The first time I ever had Red Velvet Cake was after a crazy-busy waitressing shift at the Front Porch, and I remember that bite clear as day.
The Front Porch is an itty-bitty restaurant; half-lit, canted dizzily towards the street, tin-ceilinged and always packed. When I worked there, back when it opened, the chef was a brilliant woman named Sarah Kirnon. I regularly still reach back to things I learned from watching her work. Her way of putting a dollop of the perfect salsa verde or chili sauce or homemade Habanero sauce-not too much, just perfect-is daily inspiring to me. The restaurant was famous for her fried chicken, doused with buttermilk, lime, and said salsa verde and fried crackly-crispy, but the dishes I loved most about her were her Bajan-style stews, her way with fish, the things that came from her native Barbados. There was always such a strong sense of surety in those dishes, as if there were some kind of cultural muscle memory there. Sarah grew pots of broad-leafed thyme in the back of the restaurant so that she could get the exact flavor she was looking for her in her salsa verde. Not for the sake of grow-your-own chic, but in pure pursuit of flavor.
Sarah brought in a Red Velvet Cake to sell for dessert that her neighbor in Oakland made. To my knowledge it was my first time in the same room with one, and at the end of the night when there was a piece left over I split it with some of the other girls. I had never had anything like it, and the moment stands out to me in time, snapshot crisp. It was tangy and coy in a way that I had never known cake to be. It wasn’t too sweet, wasn’t slutty with oil or butter or outrageously decadent. It was dressed with an old-fashioned buttercream and with a restrained hand. I have recipes in my arsenal for dark chocolate devil’s food that will make your eyes roll back in your head and recipes for lemon cake that will make you shiver, but before I even knew those I had to have this perfect girl-next-door of a cake for my own. Unfortunately, getting the recipe out of Sarah’s octogenarian neighbor who got it from where-she-wouldn’t-say was never, ever, ever going to happen. So I had to figure it out on my own. It was one of the first recipes that I sought to create myself, with the end result in mind but the path to it murky and obscure. I wasn’t a baker then like I am now. I made banana bread sometimes and baked out of the Tassajara Bread Book whenever I got the chance, but I didn’t bake all day and then take my baking books to bed with me like I do now, to read and re-read them until my eyes cross. I found a few recipes and did some research, but the early attempts were not even from the same planet as Sarah’s neighbor’s. They were too sweet, not cocoa-y enough, certainly didn’t have that elusive tang. Over the course of some years, every time I had an excuse I would try a different one, try tweaking it. I slowly realized that there were keys; unfiltered, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar, just the right amount of just the right cocoa, everything just so, in just such an order. After years of trying I have a recipe that I love now, that works every time, that bakes up perfectly and sells out no matter how many cupcakes I put in the case at the bakery.
Red Velvet is a polarizing cake. Everyone I talk with about it seems to either love it or truly disdain it. There are historical arguments and cultural anecdotes presented both for and against. I am the first to admit that I am sentimental about it, which certainly colors my opinion. And I will heartily agree that there are plenty of throw-away Red Velvets out there: white cake loaded up with white sugar, with two more tablespoons of food coloring than cocoa. But it’s like a first love for me. I will always be a sucker for it. And don’t misunderstand me: mine is still not as good as Sarah’s neighbor’s. Happily, I will just have to keep trying.