Chef and author Lisa Donovan has found herself questioning how she can best be of service to her community. It's taken her back to the kitchen.

By Lisa Donovan
August 12, 2020
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Credit: Victor Protasio

Lisa Donovan won a James Beard Award for her essay Dear Women: Own Your Stories. Her new book, Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger, was published earlier this month.

For three hours in July, a small group of Nashville pastry chefs held court in a black paved parking lot in East Nashville, sweating in our latex gloves, smiling as hard as we could behind our masks, hoping our eyes would do the job of showing how grateful we were. The crowd came early, eager to support in any way they could, even if that was just to spend a little money, to eat a little treat.

It’s remarkable how many thousands of dollars you can pull in just by baking your heart out and popping up some card tables with a few vintage tablecloths splayed on top. Amazing, but not surprising. Bakers know how to build lives and community—and change lives and community—through the loaves and sweets they pull from their hearth.

I spent the first three months of this pandemic and revolution shouting furiously about the idiocy of our leadership, the responsibilities of each American to course-correct, the terror in Black communities, all of the injustices–taking no prisoners, not even among family, not even among friends. I did my typical thing: thrust myself into focused but frenetic, mouthy action.

I’m not one to walk away from a fight. As I worked in that frenetic way that had served me in the past, I started to realize that this was going to require something more of me. I realized that the best way to support the people who have been fighting for years to bring change would be by putting my opinions aside, quieting my own voice, and focusing on amplifying their message, and raising money the best way I know how. Simultaneously dismantled and set free by the raw truth and great promise of everything, I mostly needed to shut up, to just sit with it and myself. And bake.

I had to put my hands back to work in ways that made space rather than filling it.

That parking lot was not new to me. A decade or so earlier, I had sold many a pie out of the trunk of my car on that same stretch of asphalt for many reasons, mostly survival.

When I was a young mother, I knew I could float a check at the Bi-Rite down the street from us if I wrote it late enough on a Thursday night. I would spend the weekend making all the tarts and cakes and cookies and breads for people in our neighborhood, loading up the old Volvo on Saturdays and Sundays with kids and boxes full of baked goods, popping the trunk in that parking lot and playing “I spy” with the kids while we waited for our customers to arrive. Come Monday, payments in hand from the deliveries, I could be at the bank by 8 a.m. to make sure that check I had written did not bounce. This allowed me to feed my kids square and lovingly prepared meals without having to scrape quite as much as we did through the week.

I had done plenty in that parking lot to keep things from falling apart, to build, to protect things in my own life. The reasons for the bake sale that day, though, were different. I stood there in the blazing southern heat of Tennessee, doing everything I could to do my part in making damn sure that some things were destroyed, finally and deeply undone.

Credit: Andrea Behrends

This was my third bake sale that week on my home turf in the center of my neighborhood, this time in support of one of the brightest spots in the future of food media, Klancy Miller’s For the Culture magazine.

There’s some real white privilege associated with learning that I have not done enough to support my Black peers, friends, neighbors, family. And it’s further a privilege to have the means to just show up with a big bag of all the things I had not done up to that point, ready to finally dig in, ready to push in ways those same Black peers, friends, neighbors and family had needed me to all along. These were details I had to best acknowledge so that I could get to work—even if just in my own meager way of schmearing butter and flour into something to sell. Destruction, rebirth, revolution: Also, here’s a financier, a canelé, a good old American brownie. Buy them. Eat them. Then, let’s do this—let’s end this whole thing, finally and forever.

“Keep your hands in the dough.” That is what a friend told me.

My anger is spinning out, what good am I if I am spent? Perhaps that is the space where I am of most use: with my mouth closed, with my head in a book, with my hands blanching and peeling peaches, sliding their skins right off in their ice-water bath. This is where I go back to quiet learning. My head has always best found its way when I can make something out of nothing.

For years, I’ve worked as a pastry chef in some of the South’s most innovative kitchens. In the morning in those restaurants, there is a quiet light and an almost ethereal hum. This moment is one of the pastry chef’s many rewards. Unlocking the door, the first one in after a night of clatter and shouting, whispered cursing, eye-rolling, loud laughing, sweating, slamming and pounding, the after-effect is a crisp silence.

The lowboys creak and buzz, keeping all the leftover mise en place cool in their quart containers with their perfectly cut blue-tape labels on their collars, looking like little schoolboys standing at attention with their pressed lapels. I would take my time in those early hours. I never rushed it. I looked for those quiet moments when I found myself in a job that seemingly had very little to do with them.

I spent so many years doing the balancing act of keeping one foot in that door, holding it open while I looked back on what I was forsaking in order to get inside—a steadfastness in caring for others, a dedication to community—foolishly thinking that financial stability and equity lay ahead if only I could get closer to the power source.

It took me a long time to realize I was the power source. That I did not have to pay homage to the way things had been done, this sort of insidiously gradual misuse and dismissal of humans as a workforce, this gatekeeping, this strange and grotesque celebrity culture created out of something as sincere and human as cooking food—or to the people who were insisting upon doing them that way. I’m renewed by the awakening so many of us are having, an acknowledgement that we all are the power source and that this world can move in the ways we all deserve.

But, looking back, I can see now how much I brought to those who already held all the cards. While I kept my head down, pretending I could subvert the system, the system itself wholly benefited from my silence and I learned that you cannot change some things unless you say it, speak its name. I can see how I got played, positioned, used for cultural capital to keep their names and work above my own. I can see how the powers that be will always try to convince us that scraps are enough, that we just have to “wait,” that their version of fairness and equity is the most we can hope for.

Allowances were made by so many of us, just so that the door wouldn’t slam on our faces entirely.

We were all so polite.

So damningly polite.

The anger from all that wasted, misdirected effort is bigger than I can handle some days. I can’t tune any of it out, so I let my head spin with every particle of news: that there’s a virus being fueled by our negligent, dangerous, bullshit president; the power in the glacial and indomitable movement being made by Black Americans; that politicians in Tennessee, the state I call home, crept into our City Capital buildings in the middle of the night, like the thieves they are, and took away every Tennessean woman’s right to make decisions about her own body.

Credit: Heidi Ross

I’ve returned to something. I’ve returned to a particular kind of silence. And as this year unfolds, I see a lot of other people moving in the direction of this kind of hopeful, true work. It is one that is less of passion, and more of grit and industrious labor; one that is less of social media clucking, and more of strategizing, taking apart and putting things back together the way we say we want them.

I have finally found a place where I once again can put my head down to get to work—the actual life work, the tactile, private, person-to-person, infrastructural work that takes more than signing a petition—paying attention to the details. It's the hands in dough. In my forced solitude, I choose to treat my anger and my outrage like I once did my physical hunger and poverty: as fuel to work harder, to build the future I believe in with every second of every day, like my life and my freedom depends on it. Because many people’s lives and freedoms do.

It is all too much.

But it is all on time.

What a truly, remarkably beautiful and hard and devastating and soul-rending time to be alive.

I’ll watch the fire, try to find the embers of hope and protect them in the rubble.

I’ll keep feeding people, because that is what bakers do.

We light fires.

We feed people from that fire.

I’ll be keeping my hands in the dough making something useful, hopefully.

Nourishing a movement.

Feeding the collapse.