The Bake Sale Returns to Its Political Roots
Pastry chef Willa Pelini of Emilie’s in Washington, DC, felt a deep sense of urgency after learning about George Floyd’s brutal murder. “I was born and raised in Minneapolis and grew up in the neighborhood where the killing took place. I was thinking what can I do? How do I channel all this weird anxiety in a productive way?” She reached out to fellow pastry chef Paola Velez who is on furlough from her job at Kith and Kin to discuss doing a pop-up, but Velez had bigger plans. “I was frustrated because my soul hurts, and my mind hurts,” says Velez. “A pop-up felt like a drop in the ocean. So I thought, if there were more of us, how much could we raise?”
That’s how Bakers Against Racism was born. Together Velez, Pelini, and chef Rob Rubba (of DC’s OysterOyster) hoped to convince 80 bakers to make 150 desserts to be sold at $8 a piece. “We figured, if there are 80 of us we could raise $96,000,” says Velez. Within three days of posting the event earlier this month—it has evolved into a massive global bake sale. The team has over 2,400 confirmed participants from 38 states and 15 different countries including Australia, Denmark, and Turkey baking everything from thick slices of pound cake dripping with a bright and sticky strawberry glaze in New York City to earthy and chewy black sesame seed cookies in Paris.
Bakers Against Racism is just one recent example of a modern and powerful grassroots movement fronted by pastry chefs who are reimagining the bake sale as a vehicle to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for political causes. “Bake sales are a form of protest,” says NYC-based pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz. “They are organizational frameworks that can be used to support or enforce certain values and movements.”
Pickowicz kicked off the movement of pastry chef-led bake sales in 2017 when she gathered 20 local chefs to throw her inaugural Planned Parenthood NYC bake sale. The event was a reaction to the results of the presidential election the previous year and the policy changes that were being made by the Trump Administration. “I wanted to do something based on my love of community and rallying people together,” she says. “And bake sales have a universal nostalgic appeal.” Her first year she managed to raise almost $9,000.
Since it first began, Pickowicz’s bake sale has grown exponentially, becoming an event that requires multiple detailed spreadsheets, intricate floor maps, and nearly a year of meetings to plan. The line to get into last year’s event was 90 minutes long and snaked down the block outside of Cafe Altro Paradiso where Pickowicz helms the pastry program. By the end of the day, Pickowicz and her pals—a 60-person group, mostly pastry chefs with a couple of savory chefs and cookbook authors mixed in—had raised $100,000.
The movement has spread rapidly across the country taking place in cities like Denver, New Orleans, San Francisco, Detroit, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Alabama, and now online thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. And it has raised money to support causes like Planned Parenthood, AIDS organizations, women's leadership programs, disaster relief, and bail funds along the way.
Pickowicz says she regularly gets calls from pastry chefs from every part of the country hoping to throw their own bake sales. “It’s nice being able to help or guide them or give them just the small amount of wisdom I've gleaned from doing this.” In fact, she has received so many calls that she recently launched The Bake Sale Project, which “aims to document the radical potential of the bake sale” while also creating an “equitable, free, collaborative, inclusive, and radical framework for learning and engagement” by providing templates, talks, recipes, contacts, and more.
The bake sale as a powerful political tool is not a new concept. Since the bake sale originated in the 1800s, it’s been a popular way for people, especially women to raise money for causes. While you might associate bake sales with brownies made from box mixes funding gym equipment for the local middle school, they’ve also been an important political tool: during the Civil Rights movement, Georgia Gilmore, a midwife and single mother of six, organized a robust underground network of black women to sell sweet potato pies and pound cakes door-to-door to help fund the Montgomery bus boycott. Women, who make up the majority percentage of professional pastry chefs, are also the ones leading this modern bake sale movement.
It’s easy to see why this movement has taken off: Bake sales are an incredibly accessible way to support causes you believe in. “I am not interested in these grand galas and political benefit dinners where it’s $10,000 a table to have things cooked for you,” says Pickowicz. “I wanted to create something that would be really accessible for everyone in my community to participate in.”
Unlike the spendy gala dinners, for about $5, attendees can pick up high-caliber desserts—such as custardy slices of turmeric and raspberry pie and zippy kolaches—by some of the best pastry chefs in the country, whose desserts might be hard to access otherwise.
And it’s an affordable way to fundraise. “I have no money to give,” says food stylist and former pastry chef Alexander Roberts. “But I can bake.” So Roberts put together a plan to sell a handful of cakes—crafted from layers of tender victoria sponge, homemade jams, and fluffy Swiss meringue buttercream—to raise money for the LA Bail Fund and BLM. He was hoping to sell four or five cakes through his Instagram for $30 a piece. So far, he has managed to sell nearly 50. “It’s more cake than I ever made in my career total as a pastry chef,” he says with a laugh. So far, Roberts has managed to raise $1,500, so far through his online bake sale called Bake Sale 4 Bail. “It’s more money than I could have ever donated myself.”
It’s also a joyful way to support a cause. “There are so many emotions going on with everyone right now and anger is a super important emotion to acknowledge to harness and feel but it’s not sustainable,” says Pelini. But to her bake sales “a joyful expression of unity and activism and joy is a sustainable emotion.”
These bake sales haven’t just helped raise money—they’ve also helped strengthen the sense of community among their organizers. Pastry chefs don’t often get the spotlight, says pastry chef Zoe Kanan. “I feel like I made countless friends that I've interacted with in all kinds of ways, in person and online, since I started doing these,” she adds. “It has brought me to other communities and people that I wouldn't have known about otherwise,” notes Pickowicz. It’s not unusual for pastry chefs to travel to participate in bake sales in other cities, too. In Nashville, pastry chefs like Sasha Piligian and Kanan, who both were at Pickowicz’s event, gathered once again, this time for a Halloween-themed bake sale thrown by Piligian’s then place of work, Lou, to raise money for a local non-profit.
Velez says these bake sales are also a way for people to get to know their communities better. The Bakers Against Racism team made the decision to decentralize where the fund raised would go, instead empowering each participant to do their research and pick an organization that will positively impact their own communities. “My goal is not to have one organization get all of the donations, but each donation that is raised go somewhere that is absolutely necessary.”