September 21, 2020

When the Bake Sale Goes Global, Millions Are Raised to Fight Injustice

Like a lot of 13-year-olds, Daniella Senior loved to bake, and thought she might become a pastry chef.

Unlike most of them, she already had six employees.

Ms. Senior started out on her own, collecting and filling orders for miniature sweets while growing up in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. “I was getting up at 4 a.m. every day before school to bake,” she said. Her mother, who had lent her $200 in seed money, made her bring on professional help.

ImageDaniella Senior, a restaurateur and activist in Washington, D.C., started a baking business with six employees when she was 13 years old.
Credit…Scott Suchman for The New York Times

As the coronavirus swept through the Northeast this spring, closing thousands of restaurants, Ms. Senior, 31, went back to baking. With the Washington pastry chef Paola Velez (who also has roots in the Dominican Republic), she repurposed her kitchens and remaining employees as doughnut producers for a bake sale they called Doña Dona.

Credit…Andrew Seavey

They created doughnuts with Dominican flourishes of tamarind, pineapple, guava and meringue, and sold them online, offering curbside pickups once a week. In May, the effort raised $6,000, enough to pay the bakers and donate a thousand dollars to Ayuda, a national nonprofit group that provides help to low-income immigrants.

But in June, when the killing of George Floyd and the debate over racial justice seized the nation’s attention, Ms. Velez, 29, said she saw that the scale of a traditional bake sale was inadequate to the cause. “It will make us feel good, but it won’t do anything to make real change,” she said. “We had to go big.”

She went big. As of last week, Bakers Against Racism, a global online bake sale she started with two other chefs, had raised almost $1.9 million for Black Lives Matter chapters and hundreds of other groups working for racial justice.

Credit…Jared Soares for The New York Times

It’s a given in the hospitality business that chefs show up for their communities in big and small ways: feeding emergency medical workers, cooking at charity benefits, donating dinners and sponsoring Little League teams. Since Mr. Floyd’s death on May 25, as protests against systemic racism arose across the country, many chefs have emptied their walk-in refrigerators to feed protesters and medical workers, and formed organizations like No Us Without You, a Los Angeles group dedicated to food security for undocumented restaurant cooks.

But it is pastry chefs and bakers who have been leading the industry into activism, transforming bake sales into blockbuster political fund-raisers for a variety of causes. And in a part of the cooking world long dominated at the top by white women (and white men before them), the voices of Latinx, Black and Asian women are rising — and raising real money for the fight against racism.

Credit…Melissa Golden for The New York Times

Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice, a new group started by three pastry chefs — Lisa Marie Donovan in Nashville, Sarah O’Brien in Atlanta and Cheryl Day in Savannah, Ga. — raised $100,000 for Color Of Change, a racial-justice advocacy group, with a Father’s Day bake sale.

On June 19 — Juneteenth — more than 50 Los Angeles-area chefs and bakers contributed to Pies For Justice, which raised $36,000 before selling out just five minutes after going live online. And in a global online bake sale the next day, more than 2,000 people contributed baked goods to Bakers Against Racism, and raised $1.9 million in donations.

Why bakers and pastry chefs? Many of them say that in the restaurant world, pastry is still dismissed as women’s work. Those who succeed — especially if they are not white — are used to fighting to be heard; for them, baking is a language of protest.

Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

Mallory Cayon, who helped create the cult-favorite brunch recipes at Sunday in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg, has remained head pastry chef as the Sunday Hospitality group grew to four restaurants: two in Brooklyn and two in Los Angeles. She said that for the first time since she entered the profession, she is in a workplace where the pastry operation (mostly staffed by women) is on equal footing with the “savory” side of the kitchen (mostly men).

“It starts in culinary school, because you look around and all the bakers are girls,” said Ms. Cayon, 30, who said she was surprised at the time that gender imbalance in the field remained so persistent, long after most workplaces had become more inclusive. “The men who do it are deemed less masculine.”

Dianna Daohueng, the culinary director at Black Seed Bagels in New York City, said that working your way up in the restaurant business as a woman, as a person of color or as a first-generation American — or, in her case, all three — means confronting prejudice every day.

“Just being a minority in the kitchen and in life turns you into a natural activist,” said Ms. Daohueng, 38, whose parents immigrated from Thailand before she was born.

Ms. Day, of Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, took a different path to protest baking. She was raised in Los Angeles, but spent summers in Tuscaloosa, Ala., learning to bake from her grandmother. “That was my culinary school,” she said.

She also came to see how baking skills have defined Black women’s lives, especially in the South. “My great-grandmother was both enslaved and a pastry cook who was famous for her biscuits and cakes,” she said. “There is power in that.” (Ms. Day, 59, has just completed a cookbook based on her Southern lineage, to be published by Artisan next year.)

Credit…Melissa Golden for The New York Times

Bake sales for civil-rights causes have a long history among African-Americans. But the current surge of public protest baking started during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

Social media posts about “stress baking” and “anger baking” turned up a few years earlier. But Tangerine Jones, a Black artist in Brooklyn, began what she tagged “rage baking” in 2015 to channel her anger about the overt racism she saw in the Trump campaign’s messaging. She gave her baked goods away to friends and neighbors, and went on to use the term to identify herself on Instagram and Twitter. (In February, an anthology titled “Rage Baking,” edited by two white women who did not credit Ms. Jones, was widely criticized for appropriating her idea and language.)

After the election, leading pastry chefs began to speak out. In 2017, Natasha Pickowicz organized a high-profile ticketed bake sale in New York, to raise money for Planned Parenthood. It became an annual event, with sales rising from $8,000 in 2017 to $100,000 in 2019. That same year, Los Angeles-area chefs led by the baker Zoe Nathan formed Gather For Good, holding frequent outdoor bake sales to benefit the American Civil Liberties Union and other free-speech advocates.

Last year’s marquee event was an all-cake sale for Planned Parenthood, with ornate, outspoken creations decorated with female reproductive organs, coat hangers and slogans like “Keep The Government Out of My Vagina!”

“The election made people brave enough to talk about immigration rights, environmental rights and racial justice,” said Stephanie Chen of Sugarbear Bakes, who contributed a “Mind Your Own Uterus” cake. (She is also a founder of Gather for Good.)

Ms. Chen, 36, was a global advertising executive for the Apple iPhone before leaving the technology industry to bake full time. From that marketing perspective, she noted that bake sales — traditional, friendly, sugarcoated — function not only as fund-raisers, but also as dialogue openers with people who otherwise might not engage with the movement.

“It’s a way of bringing information that isn’t about protest or violence,” she said.

The migration of bake sales to social media — especially Instagram, where beauty shots of pastries and bread loaves draw enormous attention — has transformed them into even more powerful tools.

Credit…Rob Rubba

On June 4, Bakers Against Racism went public on Instagram. Ms. Velez had pulled in two other Washington-based founders: the pastry chef Willa Pelini, and the chef and baker Rob Rubba, who is also a graphic artist. (“Cute but disruptive” is how Ms. Velez described the group’s visual identity.)

They tweaked the bake-sale model in a way that ultimately allowed it to go viral — by not collecting any of the money that was raised.

The organizers created the name and hashtag, shared images and language that bakers could use on social media in a Google Doc, and suggested organizations to donate to, though each baker was allowed to decide where to direct the funds. Individual bakers did the rest, connecting with their local communities for orders and deliveries of everything from brown-sugar pan dulce baked in Seattle to calamansi lime crinkle cookies (made in Chicago by the Filipina-American baker Camelia Camara) to zucchini bread (Mr. Rubba’s grandmother’s recipe).

“We didn’t want it to have to be slick and sponsored,” Mr. Rubba said. “The bakers and the buyers are equal participants in this movement.”

More than 2,500 bakery owners, pastry chefs and home bakers participated, including clusters that materialized in Berlin, Paris and London and as far afield as Australia, Tanzania and Turkey.

Credit…Deb Rubba

“The bigger it got, the more afraid I was of taking this huge stand,” said Ms. Velez, who noted that chefs — especially in Washington — are often advised to stay out of politics to preserve a broad customer base. “But the backlash never came.”

Though bake sales have been successful, the outlook for bakers is not rosy.

“We are always the first department to get cut,” Ms. Pelini said. Restaurant owners know that they can easily resort to serving ice cream or cookie plates instead of labor-intensive desserts.

Almost every chef interviewed for this article had lost a job or closed a bakery, at least temporarily, during the pandemic. The kitchen assistants who worked for them, many of them low-income immigrants, are often ineligible for unemployment and lack access to health care.

Most of the chefs say they are baking because it is currently the only practical action they can take against chaos and injustice.

“I don’t know policy, I am not a lawyer who can get people out of prison, but I can make cookies,” Ms. Pelini said. “And maybe if I sell someone cookies, it can open a conversation about why we are making them.”