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Board Members Memo: Baking to Make Things Better

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by Kathy Strahs, Founder, Burnt Cheese Press —

Kathy Strahs

How Burnt Cheese Press founder embraced baking as an opportunity to make a positive difference.

“Cooking and baking is physical and mental therapy.” —Mary Berry

At one point, early in quarantine when pantry staples were running scarce, I procured a 50-pound bag of flour directly from a local mill. Little did I know that it wouldn’t be long before I blasted through all of it and then some.

An announcement for a virtual bake sale, called Bakers Against Racism, showed up in my Instagram feed at just the right time, as I needed a positive direction in my life. As if the pandemic and all of its implications—fear, anxiety, crisis schooling for my two kids, keeping my family healthy and safe—hadn’t already turned my world upside down, my stress over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others paralyzed me emotionally. Work on a new book project? Promote my backlist? Do anything for my publishing business that I’d “normally” like to be doing? I just couldn’t.

Spearheaded by a trio of bakers on the East Coast, the Bakers Against Racism call was simple: Host a bake sale and donate a portion or all of the proceeds to a nonprofit organization of your choice that’s working to end systemic and structural racism in the United States. It was open to professional and amateur bakers alike. As a cookbook author, this was right in my wheelhouse. I wanted to help, and I realized at that moment I needed to as well. I clicked the link to sign up on the spot.

For the beneficiary of my bake sale, I chose Black Girls CODE, a San Francisco-based organization that offers computer coding lessons to young girls from underrepresented communities across the country. Especially where I live, in Silicon Valley, the “digital divide” can create significant quality-of-life disparities. I love the work this group is doing to help level the playing field.

The decision of what to bake was easy. Chocolate chip cookies have long been my go-to for bake sales, and my recipe in The Lemonade Stand Cookbook was simple and straightforward enough to bake in large quantity, should the need arise. I’d sell a dozen for $20 and donate all of the proceeds to Black Girls CODE. Since I was already set up with an ordering system and shipping supplies from my business, I’d offer nationwide shipping to extend my reach beyond my local community. Who knew, maybe friends in other states would want to support the effort. For the first time in months, I felt some of my energy come back. I could help make things better.

Just before lunch on the day Bakers Against Racism had designated to launch the campaign, I pushed the ordering page live on my website and shared it on Facebook and Instagram. Within the first hour, I had orders for 32 dozen cookies. People were showing up!

As friends and followers shared my post, more orders flowed in. By dinnertime, the tally had reached 113 dozen. A touch of apprehension began to mix with my enthusiasm for the show of support. That seemed like a lot of cookies to bake, especially since I probably could do 12, maybe 15 dozen in a given day. I didn’t want to turn anyone away who wanted to donate, but how many cookies could I realistically bake?

At 8:45 p.m., I checked the ordering system before heading upstairs to read with my 10-year-old son, and I made up my mind. At 144 dozen cookies ordered, it was time to pump the brakes. In actuality, I wouldn’t need to bake all 144 dozen, as some people indicated they simply wanted to donate money without receiving cookies. But, still, my oven was definitely in for a workout. Daunting as the volume was, I was nonetheless excited to get down to baking.

That night, and pretty much every night for the next two weeks, I began churning out chocolate chip cookie dough. By the third batch, I knew the recipe by heart and had a good system going. I’d mix and scoop dough while watching Netflix with my 12-year-old daughter, wrap and set the trays in the refrigerator to chill overnight (they really do taste even better this way), and the next morning I’d fire up the oven and start baking cookies. It made me happy to bake cookies for people, especially knowing what a terrific cause they were backing. There were no complaints from the family about the house smelling like a bakery, although I think it may have distracted my husband from his Zoom calls on occasion.

As I wrote each recipient’s name on the pickup or delivery slips, I pictured them pulling the ribbon off the bags and, hopefully, enjoying what was inside. It meant something to me to be sharing homemade treats with not only my local friends, but also friends I hadn’t seen in more than a decade, a cousin I’d only met once years ago, and plenty of folks I’d never met before at all. A woman even recognized me on the street after a friend of hers had shared my cookie sale post on Facebook—she asked to buy two dozen. And then there were the people who got in touch with me after seeing me on the TV news. A reporter called me for an interview one evening—she’d found me via the #bakersagainstracism hashtag—and it aired on CBS affiliates around the country. It was so heartening to experience these connections from near and far.

Once I’d shipped off the final batch of cookies, I ended up reopening for a limited “second round” during which another 17 dozen were quickly claimed. All told, I proudly donated $3,083 to Black Girls CODE on behalf of my bake sale patrons. The Bakers Against Racism campaign as a whole raised nearly $2 million for nonprofits worldwide, with more than 2,400 bakers like myself participating. Suffice it to say, I used up every last speck from that 50-pound bag of flour I’d bought.

While I continue to struggle each day to confront the myriad challenges that are beyond my control, I’m grateful to have embraced this opportunity to make a positive difference. Helping others helped me in that amidst all that’s wrong in the world right now, I was reminded of so much that’s right and good. I needed that. Cookies, for the win.

Kathy Strahs is the founder of Burnt Cheese Press and author of The 8×8 Cookbook.

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