I can still remember the first time I ever made red velvet cheesecake brownies. I was home for spring break shortly after the Tohoku earthquake rocked Japan in 2011, and my sister needed some sweets for a fundraiser at her high school. I scrolled through recipes online, looking for something with a vague Japan theme.
For me and for many Americans steeped in the mainstream culture, red velvet conjures up images of Carrie and her posh friends enjoying red velvet cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery, a scene that made Magnolia Bakery a major tourist attraction overnight and set off the cupcake craze. Just the name red velvet sounds luxurious to the point of being hedonistic. The color scheme of the classic red velvet cupcake topped with perfectly white cream cheese frosting is reminiscent of candy canes and valentines and winter festivities.
Red velvet and cream cheese are also the same colors as the Japanese flag. There’s no inspirational reason for why I chose this recipe, no deep rationale attaching the positive connotations of red velvet to a country in need of encouragement. At the time, I was glad to have found a recipe so superficially suited to a fundraiser for Japan. Even better, the recipe was super easy.
Well, my sister came home and said the brownies sold out the fastest out of everything at the bake sale. Everyone had loved them, even the teachers. And I was satisfied.
Every now and then, I would think back to the tsunami. Those pictures of entire villages washed away were terrifying, but the pictures of all the missing people, of all the flowers and alters and people praying for their close ones’ safe return, those were devastating. And yet, after a year, the public’s memory faded. And now that it’s been a whopping two and a half years, the tsunami has ceased to be seen as a massive human tragedy and instead has become a political weapon, with reports of dangerous levels of nuclear leakages from Fukushima, right as Japan was in the process of securing the honor of hosting the 2020 Olympics.
Not to downplay the severity of leakage of nuclear waste, but the timing struck me as suspicious. All these doomsday reports came out of nowhere, with the conclusion that Japan was too dangerous to host the Olympics.
First of all, Japan has done a fantastic job of returning to normalcy. Maybe fantastic is too strong of a word, so instead I’ll use a comparison: they did a significantly better job than our reaction to Katrina. Years after Katrina, parts of New Orleans still lie in shambles, while Japan as a country worked to return many of the hardest hit areas to some semblance of normalcy in just a year.
Secondly, when I first saw the reports, I was extremely concerned, as I’m sure basically everyone who read the articles was. Once nuclear waste gets into the water, it makes its rounds, leading to health and environmental repercussions that are still unknown. But then I got mad. I got mad that for important news events like the Tohoku earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, which ruined countless lives and took many more, we have such a short memory, but we still remember so-called iconic scenes from Sex and the City, which stopped airing in 2004, almost a decade ago.
What is it about pop culture that makes us remember it? Is it because we want to, while images of people huddling in temporary shelters that become flimsy semi-permanent homes, of cities decimated, whether by natural disasters or by war, are too terrible to remember? We can relate to our favorite characters, but we push away real life suffering as something that we cannot fathom unless we too have experienced something as traumatic. Or at least, that’s the excuse.
As for those who have seemingly forgotten the tragic human aspect of the tragedy and have instead chosen to politicize the aftermath to discredit Japan, I truly question their humanity. (They’re also saying this to a nation who created sushi. Trust me, the Japanese care about the health of sea creatures just as much as, if not more than, all the haters.) Just as the Japanese flag represents the rising sun, so have the Japanese risen above tragedy, rightfully earning the honor of hosting the 2020 Olympics.
Red Velvet Cheesecake Brownies (adapted from Baking Bites) – makes one 8×8 pan
1/2 cup butter
2 oz dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup sugar (I use 3/4 cup)
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp red food coloring
2/3 cup all purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
8 oz cream cheese, room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350F.
Line an 8-or 9-in square pan with aluminum foil (or parchment paper) and lightly grease.
In a small, heatproof bowl, melt butter and chocolate together. Stir with a fork until very smooth. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.
In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, eggs, vanilla extract and red food coloring. Add in the chocolate mixture and stir until smooth. Batter should be red. Add flour and salt into the bowl and stir until everything is just combined and no streaks of dry ingredients remain.
Pour into the prepared pan and spread into an even layer.
In a medium bowl, beat cream cheese, sugar, egg and vanilla extract until smooth. Drop in dollops onto prepared brownie batter. Gently swirl two batters with a butter knife, then tap the pan against counter a few times to get out any air bubbles that formed while swirling.
Bake for 35-40 minutes, until brownies and cheesecake are set. A knife inserted into the cheesecake mixture should come out clean and the edges will be lightly browned.
Cool in the pan completely before slicing and serving, either at room temperature or chilled.