On a mission to make America bake again

"Rage Baking" authors Kathy Gunst and Katherine Alford on baking hope out of fury, making community & social change

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 31, 2020 6:00PM (EDT)

Slice missing from red velvet cake on a cakestand (Getty Images/ Martin Barraud)
Slice missing from red velvet cake on a cakestand (Getty Images/ Martin Barraud)

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

As our current shortage of flour and yeast makes abundantly clear, when the going gets tough, the tough get baking. There's an almost primal human impulse, in times of distress, to seek solace and solidarity in turning flour and water into bread, or butter and sugar into a bowl of frosting.  The sweetness we create can rise from the bitterest experiences. Well before the coronavirus drove the population to turn on its ovens, culinary world veterans Kathy Gunst and Katherine Alford were already talking about channeling frustration into pie baking.

Though it feels part of an even bigger story now, "Rage Baking: The Transformative Power of Flour, Fury, and Women's Voices" was initially intended as a political statement. As Gunst writes in her introduction, it was during the Kavanaugh hearings that she noticed a connection between her fury and her desire to make cake. "I began to see parallels between baking and the state of the world," she explains. And she was far from alone. The book she and Alford manifested from that feeling is a unique hybrid. It's collection of recipes — including "im-peach-ment upside-down cake" and "power muffs" — as well essays and clear advice even a first time rage baker can follow, from voices as diverse as Dorie Greenspan, Carla Hall, and Ani DiFranco. And a portion of the book's proceeds are being donated to EMILY's List, to help that female political dough rise.

Last month, the book was embroiled in controversy when blogger and baker Tangerine Jones pointed out that she's been using the phrase and hashtag #ragebaking for five years. After Jones, who has an Instagram and website called Rage Baking, wrote a Medium response to the authors on "The Privilege of Rage," Alford, Gunst and Tiller Press issued a statement promising to "acknowledge Tangerine Jones' contributions around the phrase in future editions of 'Rage Baking,' as well as the works of others who have used the phrase in their online publishing and social media activity." 

Salon spoke recently with the authors about raging with love, and baking as a revolutionary act.

It feels like this book arrived in another reality, yet it feels it feels so much more relevant and necessary than ever. Can you give a  sense of how it came together with the different contributors you have in it from the world of food and the world of feminism?

Kathy Gunst: Rage baking goes back to the Revolutionary War. During a time when women were not allowed to vote, and election days were then considered holidays, women would bake very dense, fruit-filled cakes called election cakes. It was a way of expressing themselves during a time when they were not allowed to express themselves in the voting booth. You see signs of it throughout history. During the civil rights movement, people had secret kitchens and were baking to help pay for activism and different marches and rallies.

For me it was the fall of 2018, I was deeply invested in watching the Kavanaugh hearings. Each day as I listened, I became more and more enraged and upset with what I viewed to be men not listening to this incredibly brave woman, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who was risking her family and her safety and her home to tell her story about this man she knew during her youth. It brought up for me a whole lot of issues about women not being heard and women not being allowed to express themselves in the same way that men do. I found myself, each night that week during the hearings, in my kitchen baking. I would bake a cake, a pie, and cookies.

At the time I didn't fully understand what I was doing. I've always been a good baker, but I've written 15 cookbooks before this one and none of them had been about baking. Yet, that's what I was turning to. In retrospect, it felt like all the rules were eroding, that everything that I had brought up to believe — that you tell the truth, you speak up — seemed to not matter anymore. Somehow baking, with its very succinct and specific formula – measure the flour properly, bring the butter to room temperature, add the exact amount of sugar, transform these very basic ingredients into something sweet and satisfying – was very grounding for me during a difficult time.

Katherine Alford: The whole practice of baking is very meditative. The practice makes you very present. That was very grounding. We also knew that we wanted to use our skills together to do something.

Gunst: We knew right away this was not going to be a book about the two of us and our recipes and our thoughts. This was going to be a book where we reached out to a wide range of women who are in the top of their field — musicians, activists, bakers, food writers, fiction writers, Hollywood writers — to see what their take is on rage and rage baking.

Did you come up with a dream wish list of people you want to reach out to?

Alford: It was this very lofty idea of all the wonderful, amazing, powerful women we could get. Many of those were also just from our community, the wonderful Dorie Greenspan and Ruth Reichl and Jessica Harris, so many people. The book had a life of its own as we reached out to people we knew and people that we dreamed of having in the book. I was with a former colleague of mine and I said, "We're working on this book." She was like, "I know someone who knows Cecile Richards." I knew she was an amazing baker. It was just very serendipitous how one person would lead to another. We knew that we didn't want a traditional cookbook of recipes. We wanted a wide range of different women's experiences and age and identities and races. This should be not a one size fits all, but really to be as inclusive as we could.

Gunst: The list that we ended up with is really a combination of some very well-known names and writers and bakers and some that you possibly have never heard of. That felt so right to us in a way. Of course we would have loved to have Michelle Obama and Oprah and people like that in the book, but this became almost more powerful because these voices were very real, passionate and needed to be heard from.

What is the process? Did you say to contributors, "How can we make a pun of this, or make this relevant to the topic at hand?"

Gunst: We said, "Send us something you love or something that relates to a person or a time in your life when you were maybe feeling some rage." I sent out a prompt to almost a dozen writers and it simply said, "What does the word 'rage' bring up for you? What does the phrase 'rage baking' elicit?" Every woman comes to this from such a different place and everybody's experience is so different. When you look through the book, each one of the essays is so distinct and the voice is so clear.  

Alford: I love making titles for recipes and I like it when there's a little bit of humor in there, particularly with this with so many dark issues. I knew I wanted a honey cupcake and then it was a "Don't call me honey" cupcake. I knew that I wanted to have a pull apart bread because that was just how I was feeling at the time. I wanted to pull apart all these systems that are so messed up. I was reading Cecile Richards' book "Make Trouble," and [her comment that] we take two steps forward and then one step back. That metaphor in terms of the process of developing a recipe or making change or getting someone elected really resonated for me. It was very, very powerful to see how baking could be a metaphor.

Gunst: We were starting to see all kinds of women who are bakers and social media people using cakes and cookies and cupcakes as a blank canvas for messages, whether it was about reproductive rights or a political candidate or a political cause. Suddenly, cakes were not just birthdays and anniversaries. They were a place where women could take a picture and send it out into the world with a message on top. Baking was becoming more and more political and more and more an expression of passion and rage and messaging.

When the Alabama legislature passed that hideous law, I just called Kathy up and I said, "We have to have a pig and a blanket." It was just expressing what we really have running our country — pigs in a blanket. There's so much muckraking in that tradition of political activism. Using humor, but also your smarts and your skills, whether you're a cabaret singer or a political activist. A spoonful of sugar does make the medicine go down.

We all need as many spoons full of sugar as humanly possible right now. There's the rage aspect of it, but it is on the same plane as this loving, tender thing.  

Gunst: We did have a bit of a book tour before the world exploded and many people at our events were saying, "I always bake with love. What's the difference between rage baking and love baking?" And I said, "They're not mutually exclusive at all." Everything I cook, I like to think I do with love because there is no grand or more loving activity than preparing food and sharing it with someone. Now we find ourselves in this time where we can't share food. We can't meet at a cafe or a restaurant and sit around a table with one another. How do you build community at a time when you need to stay home and stay away from other people? I have been baking every single day, every night.

I'm baking and dropping it off at neighbors' houses outside, never seeing them, never being able to hand it to them. And I'm urging people to bake and drop it off in front of an apartment or the home of an elderly person who can't get out and can't go shopping and probably would really appreciate something sweet. I'm consumed right now with the idea of building community at a time when we're told to stay away from community. I think baking really can play into that in a very positive way.

Alford: Also, that sense of creativity and transformation is really important. This past weekend, I looked in my pantry, trying to be very frugal and make things less than the supplies that I have. I made a vinegar pie, which goes back to that wonderful tradition of Appalachian women and women in general, always being able to MacGyver and figure things out to make what are called desperation pies.

It's incredibly simple. You get that tartness from apple cider vinegar like you would get from lemons and counter out a counterbalance with toasted, nutty butter. It's amazing. It's something very simple but also connects me to women solving problems. I love that about what this book does, and this time that I think people are baking. I dropped off yeast with a friend in Brooklyn last week because she couldn't find any. I was just driving by with my car and I was like, "Here's the yeast."

Gunst: I find it really interesting that so many grocery stores have run out of flour and yeast, as the bakeries are closed. The only way you're going to get decent bread is to make it yourself. If you don't know how to cook, there's never been a better time to do it. If you don't know how to bake, there's never been a better time to do it, because we're home and we can't go out. This is an incredibly satisfying grounding activity.

I also really appreciate that this book that breaks it down for people who maybe have never baked before, how to do it and what you're going to need.

Gunst: Exactly. These are not hard recipes. They're supposed to be doable and also representative of a wide, wide range of all the women that are in there from amazing granola to chocolate. It was a joy.

Alford: We wanted this to be a tool for the election, and a portion of the proceeds will go to EMILY's List, which stands for "Early money is like yeast," which we thought was very appropriate. More than ever, the November election matters.

Gunst: This is definitely not a book telling women to get back in the kitchen and shut up or all their problems will be over. We're talking about using baking and using your voice for social change.

This book also highlights female resourcefulness in the face of tremendous adversity, and we are certainly experiencing that right now. What this book speaks to is the real, absolutely moving beauty of the way that women do rise to that and the way that women do step up.

Gunst: When you say that of how women respond to challenges, it makes me think of, Elle Simone Scott's unbelievably fantastic lemon cake, which is one of the best pound cakes I've ever had. And then there's her poem that is dedicated to her great grandmother, about how she used food during the Jim Crow South and during the great migration and sending her family North with those messages, wrapped up in a pound cake. It just very powerful.

Alford: Baking and the domestic arts have traditionally not been taken seriously, and we really wanted to reframe that. This is a very powerful thing. There is a lot of science involved in baking, and discipline in the same tradition of Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party — women get shit done.

Gunst: When we started this book, I really was coming at it from a place of anger and rage. When we reached out to all these women, we started having these incredible essays and doing these interviews and testing these recipes, there was this sense of community. By the time we pressed "send" on the manuscript and we were done with the book, I had such a different feeling, and I realized that it was one of hope. It had to do with the power of all these women coming together, and their voices and their passion. That was a very powerful moment for me, when I realized that some of that rage had really turned into a message of hope.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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