How red velvet cake became a staple for Juneteenth

Red velvet cake and other red foods, like barbecue and watermelon, are a traditional part of Juneteenth.

By Mathany Ahmed

From the first slice, as bright white frosting gives way to a blood-red crumb, red velvet cake is full of surprises. The rich cream cheese frosting, not-quite-chocolate flavor and especially moist sponge have made the dessert a popular staple in American cooking for at least a century.

To add to its surprises, it also has long and proud connection to Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers marched into Texas and told the 250,000 people who were enslaved there that they were finally free, more than two years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

But the cake’s symbolism goes back even further. “In West African cultures, red symbolizes spiritual power, transformation and strength,” Iowa Juneteenth Director Dwana Bradley said. “It also represents the blood of enslaved people who never gained their freedom.”

Just as home cooks debate the finer points of the cake’s recipe variations, historians disagree about the origins of the cake’s vibrant hue. Today, most red velvet cakes are dyed with food coloring, which wasn’t popularized in the United States until the 1930s. The color may also result from a chemical reaction between baking powder, buttermilk and the acids in cocoa powder. Others attribute it to the sugar beets that cooks used as an alternative sweetener during the Great Depression.

At modern Juneteenth celebrations, guests often enjoy red velvet cake alongside other red staples, like barbecue and strawberry soda. Watermelon, which was probably part of the first Juneteenth celebrations, is also a must.

“The practice of eating red foods — red cake, barbecue, punch and fruit — may owe its existence to the enslaved Yoruba and Kongo brought to Texas in the 19th century,” Michael Twitty, a culinary historian, wrote in 2011 on the website Afroculinaria. “For both of these cultures, the color red is the embodiment of spiritual power and transformation.”

Here in Des Moines, guests can sample all of these Juneteenth foods and more at Thursday’s Community Builders’ Appreciation Banquet, one of the many events Bradley and Iowa Juneteenth are hosting this month. The event will feature a buffet, silent auction and guest speakers, including Ian Roberts, superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools.

“The history of food within our culture is pretty amazing,” Bradley said. “I love to be able to share this small piece of it.”

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