Wisdom//

To Combat My Feelings of Helplessness, I Turned to Baking

“Baking was a way of temporarily restoring my belief in the positive transformation of things—in this case, butter, flour, sugar, and fruit.”

eldar nurkovic / Shutterstock
eldar nurkovic / Shutterstock

It was late September 2018. I was glued to the television. I listened all day as the Senate grilled Dr. Christine Blasey Ford about the “incident,” as they called it, with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. I watched as Rachel Mitchell, a female prosecutor from Arizona, the woman puppet for the men in gray suits, asked the same questions over and over again.

I remember thinking: Why is this called a “hearing?” No one is really listening to Dr. Ford.

I kept asking myself: Why would this woman risk her career, family, safety, and reputation to challenge a Supreme Court nominee if it never really happened?

A line from a song in the musical Hamilton kept running through my head: “No one else was in the room where it happened.”

And I remember thinking, toward the end of the “hearing,” when it became clear that despite all the testimony, they would push Kavanaugh through: Women don’t get heard. Women are considered hysterical if they sound the alarm over a man’s bad behavior instead of accepting the old logic that “boys will be boys.”

In a press conference after the hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, told reporters, “I don’t doubt something happened to her, but she is saying it’s Brett Kavanaugh but she can’t tell me the house, the city, the month, or the year . . . Ms. Ford is a very accomplished lady, something happened. I thought it was a good suggestion for her to go talk to someone and work through this.”

I had a wonderful father. He was funny and smart, told wicked jokes (often at the expense of others), and was beloved by many. But that week, listening to the Kavanaugh hearings, I inadvertently hit the rewind button in my memory and heard my father reacting to me as a young girl, a teenager, and a young woman.

My father called me “Sarah Bernhardt” when he thought I was being overly dramatic. Sarah Bernhardt, a French actress in the late 1800s, gained fame for her emotional acting style. When I was in crisis (something as mundane as sparring junior high girlfriends or as complicated as having trouble with the Vietnam War), he always had the same line: “Okay, Sarah Bernhardt!” It was his code for telling me to take a breath, quiet down. But it almost never worked. His insistence that I be more ladylike, less full of opinion, was like lighter fluid on the fire. It made me want to roar.

Every woman I know has some version of this story.

That week, and the one after, when we watched Brett Kavanaugh sputter with anger, tongue jutting into the side of his mouth as he spilled and spun one story and sad excuse after another, I felt a level of rage that I rarely experience explode within me. 

We were at a dinner party with close friends. And of course we were discussing the hearing. One of the men made a flip comment about the way women were reacting to what was happening in that Senate committee room, and, well, I lost it. I stormed away from the dinner table, locked myself in the bathroom like a teenager, and wept with fury. I stayed there longer than was socially acceptable. When I came back to the table, tear-soaked, I did what well-behaved women the world over do: I apologized for getting upset, for pulling a Sarah Bernhardt

I read the editorials. I listened to NPR. And then “my” senator, Susan Collins of Maine, a supposed “moderate Republican,” claimed she was holding off on her decision until she heard all of Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony. During that week, I will admit to calling Senator Collins’s office more than once a day. I will come clean and say that the messages I left in the senator’s voice mail were often quite heated; some might even call them “dramatic.” I lost all hope in the senator who, it turned out, was secretly making deals off camera. (Months later, she received millions of out-of-state dollars for her up- coming 2020 campaign after she voted to confirm Kavanaugh. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican from Kentucky, told Fox News, “Senator Collins will be well funded, I can assure you.”) 

When I watched Collins stand on the Senate floor telling us why she would vote yes for Kavanaugh’s approval, I felt defeat for all women. What charged through my mind was the rant by the lead character in Paddy Chayefsky’s seminal 1976 film Network: I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore. 

My rage bubbled and seethed. This time, rather than tamping it down, politely changing the subject, or apologizing for being emotional, I listened to my rage. If I expected others to take me seriously, I needed to honor it, to hear this part of myself. But this anger at a system that pretends to listen to women threatened to take me over in a way that felt destructive. 

I took long walks, but came back just as angry. I talked to like-minded friends but came away thinking: We need to be talking to the other side. Nothing worked to dispel my rage. 

And then, late one night, I found myself in my kitchen, pulling flour, sugar, butter, and baking powder out of the pantry. I decided to bake a simple almond cake topped with late-summer fruit. I scooped out the flour and made sure it was perfectly level in my measuring cup. I softened the butter. I listened to the whole almonds growl as I chopped them in the blender. I peeled ripe peaches and caught every last drop of their sweet juice in my batter. I scattered the last of the tart, wild Maine blueberries on top. And a few hours later, I had a gorgeous cake and a calmer heart. 

The next day, I returned to the kitchen and focused on creating tahini chocolate chip cookies and a mixed berry galette. The day after that, I melted chocolate and baked a flourless cake that offered the satisfaction of a brownie with the sophistication of a French tart. Strangely, I wasn’t particularly interested in eating any of these creations. But I suddenly, desperately, wanted to spend long hours in the kitchen, baking and then baking some more. 

The UPS man rang my doorbell with a delivery, and I handed him the cake and a batch of cookies. He looked at me with an expression that was both grateful and perplexed. I didn’t even try to explain. 

I took pictures of my baking and posted them on Instagram with the hashtag #ragebakers. Did I make the connection between my rage and this newfound interest in/obsession with baking? I’m honestly not sure, but it felt like something I had to do. Friends and strangers on social media reacted positively. “I feel the same way,” many women wrote. “Baking sounds a lot better than lying on the couch weeping.” 

Did the baking stop the rage? Hell no. Did the baking make all the lies and deceit and behind-the-scenes dealings feel less menacing? Not one bit. Did the baking make me feel less afraid of the erosion of democracy I was witnessing as I listened to the evening news? No, it didn’t really do any of those things. 

What the baking did was reset my focus for a few short hours. It became a balm, a meditation of sorts. Baking was a way of temporarily restoring my belief in the positive transformation of things—in this case, butter, flour, sugar, and fruit. Each day, as the political outrages piled up, my mind was absorbed in the precision and focus and discipline that baking requires. A simple cake took me away from the news cycle. It was the calmest I’d felt since the Kavanaugh hearings were announced. 

I suppose the other benefit of all this baking (besides the adoration of the UPS guy and several friends and neighbors who were thrilled at the sugary goods a worn-out, flour-splattered me delivered to their kitchens) was the way I felt strong enough to go back out into the world, refocused, regenerated, and ready to fight for the things I believe in. 

I began to see parallels between baking and the state of the world. If I focused and stayed on task, my yeasty bread dough bubbled and rose in a productive way. My buttery pastry, after it chilled for the requisite time, didn’t crack or fall apart. Baking helped me reset and figure out what my contribution to community, to activism, to political discourse might look like.

I marched. I wrote letters to my senators and congressmen and -women. I tried to soothe my adult daughters, who both called devastated at what they were witnessing. I gave donations to Planned Parenthood and organizations that fight for women’s reproductive rights. I connected with women in Maine who were considering running against Susan Collins in the next election. Mostly, I tried to believe that what was happening in our country could still be fixed. I needed to convince myself and my daughters that the approval of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court did not mean that women would lose their rights. 

But just a few months later, in May 2019, twenty-five white men in the Alabama State Senate voted to make abortion illegal even in cases of rape and incest. (The state’s female Republican governor, Kay Ivey, signed it into law.) Other states followed suit. By the time you read this, I don’t know what will have happened, what kind of rage you might be feeling. 

The news keeps coming at us, like an unrelenting tornado. There is no time to truly absorb these stories, these outrages. We are like sponges that are already fully soaked. How are we to process the way these men are trying to turn back the clock, take away women’s right to choose, tell us what we can and can’t do with our own bodies?

Let me be clear: this is not a book telling women that if they get back into the kitchen and start baking, their rage will be sedated and all will be well. Far from it. 

This is a book about women’s voices, women’s recipes, women in community with one another. 

Don’t let anyone tell you you’re being too dramatic, too loud, too outspoken. Too Sarah Bernhardt. Speak out. Speak up. 

Whether you march, make a donation large or small, work for a candidate you believe in, or join a local organization fighting for something that speaks to you, stay informed and involved. Now more than ever, our voices matter. 

This is how we fight together. Protest together. Vote together. Make change together. 

Let’s make our voices heard, together. 

When Katherine and I set out to write Rage Baking, we knew it had to be much more than a “regular” cookbook. As two women who have been in the food journalism/ media world for many decades, we weren’t quite sure what that might look like. So we did what felt natural and took it one step at a time. Our first step was to reach out to a community of women we respect and admire. Bakers, chefs, food writers, fiction and nonfiction and television writers, poets, artists, illustrators, musicians. And in no time at all, we had a wildly diverse group of women (over forty women from more than twenty states) responding with a resounding “Hell, yes!” It seems the connection between rage and baking, and the passion for cooking and activism casts a wide net. 

This is the Rage Baking collection. You’ll find over fifty recipes for cakes, pies, cookies, sweet and savory breads, candy, and granola, each with a story to tell. You’ll also find essays and interviews, poems and illustrations. But what we hope you’ll find, more than anything else, is inspiration. Inspiration to regain your equilibrium while you bake, inspiration from the powerful words the women in this collection share, and inspiration to get out there and fight for what you believe in.

From RAGE BAKING by Kathy Gunst and Katherine Alford, published by Tiller Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2020 by Kathy Gunst and Katherine Alford. All rights reserved.

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