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This Old Kitchen: Red Velvet Cake

When our Food Stories cookbook was being written we compiled not just recipes but recorded oral histories from people and these oral histories are recorded. So today, we are focusing on Dora Abney, her red velvet cake recipe, and what Juneteenth meant to her.

You may be asking yourself, what is Juneteenth? Juneteenth is the celebration and commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. But the proclamation didn’t reach many slaves until much later. Union soldiers often delivered the news as they moved through the South.  It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, two months after the Civil War ended, that slaves in Texas learned that they were free. 

Formerly enslaved people  and their descendants continued to celebrate the anniversary of their freedom every year on June 19th, which came to be known as “Juneteenth.” As African Americans migrated to other parts of the country, they took the holiday with them. Juneteenth was first celebrated in Seattle in 1890.

“Red foods represented the blood that was shed during slavery – red pop, red velvet cake. Watermelon. And chicken barbecue, barbecued ribs. The blood was really flowing! Dora Abney in 2003 discussing why Red food is served at Juneteenth celebrations, Rainier Valley Food Stories Cookbook

Below is an excerpt of Dora Abney’s oral history. This oral history was conducted in 2003 for Rainier Valley Historical Society’s Food Stories Cookbook. 

Dora Abney in 2003 was the Director of Twinks Early Childhood Education Center and Preschool in Columbia City. She is originally from Marshall, Texas, where her family celebrated Juneteenth. She moved to Seattle in the early 1960s and has lived in the Rainier Valley for more than 30 years. Here she shares her memories of Juneteenth and explains the importance of the holiday for African Americans -- and others – today.

Everything was fresh because in June it’s at the end of the harvest for the South. So we would have corn on the cob – everything was fresh, fresh everything – fresh chicken out of the yard, fresh chicken off the farm, barbecue ribs. 

What the women made was cake and pie. And the rest of it the mens did. They got a pig in the ground, cook it all night. Then they’d put on a fire and have the ribs and stuff be on bars hanging over the fire, not like what they do now, with a grill. They just hang it. It would cook, they’d roll it over. You don’t hardly see it anymore. The men would do the whole work!”

What I can remember about Juneteenth is mostly my dad. I just remember how he used to say, “Juneteenth, that’s a big thing for us,” and by being born in the South, I kinda understood what he was saying. I saw what was going on, but didn’t really understand why

Some people say it’s like the Fourth of July, but this particular day, it was more exciting for my father. Now I recognize why, because that was the day they considered they got their freedom. It was his dad’s dad’s dad – it was passed down. They understood what it meant, and why that day was so meaningful. I got the idea that it was for freedom, but the history behind it was really not told, because it’s a sad situation, what had really happened. 

But he would always go out and shop like it was Christmas, and he would buy food, picnic stuff.  Whether it fell on a Sunday or Monday, it was a holiday to us. Everybody in the neighborhood, everybody in the city took off. The whole city was shut down. And we would picnic away. It was hot. My father, he would always sing, and he would play ball, and he was just excited. All the mens, they played ball. We packed up and we went to the baseball field. We would just celebrate. The men and the women would just dance. The kids would look, ‘cause you know, we didn’t know. As I got older it was more explained to me. So now, I’m trying to feed that little knowledge that I know to the other children – not only just black, everyone – to understand that – it’s freedom. 

When we came to Washington State it kind of faded out of the family, people didn’t celebrate it. They said, “What do you mean, Juneteenth? We don’t celebrate that.” So I figured I’d let it slide. Then about four years ago, when I started at the daycare center, I brought it up again. I said, “We need to celebrate Juneteenth. The kids don’t know what it’s about.” So in 2000 we had a Juneteenth celebration at Twinks, where we blocked off the street, we sold barbecue, and the kids played. It was exciting. I said “Juneteenth,” and then to me, everybody blossomed. All of a sudden everybody did know about it: “Yeah, I heard about that, what is it about?” So we started digging up information so we could put it out, so people understand what it is. 

During her oral history, Dora Abney gave us her recipe for red velvet cake.

RED VELVET CAKE with Cream Cheese Frosting


½ cup shortening 3 Tbs. cocoa

1 ½ cups sugar 1 cup buttermilk

2 ½ cups sifted cake flour 1 tsp. salt

2 eggs 1 Tbs. vinegar

1 tsp. vanilla 1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. butter flavoring 1 ½ oz bottle of red color

Cream shortening and sugar.

Beat in eggs, vanilla, and butter flavor.

Make a paste of cocoa and food coloring and add it to the first mixture.

Alternately add flour and buttermilk.

Mix baking soda and vinegar in a small bowl; add to batter.

Bake in three 9” or 10” pans for 20-25 minutes at 350o.

Let cool completely before frosting.


6 oz. cream cheese, softened 1 tsp. vanilla

6 Tbs. butter, softened 2 cups sifted powdered sugar

Blend all ingredients until smooth. 

Serving Suggestions for Red Velvet Cake 

While the cake is perfectly delicious on its own (I personally think that this is the best Red Velvet I've ever tasted) I ended up having to make mine into red velvet cake truffles by dipping them into chocolate. Add a lollipop stick and you have some delicious cake pops.


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