“Use your anger to bake, but don’t get bitter." It was Maya Angelou's words that awakened Kathy Gunst and Katherine Alford's passion to write a recipe book with a difference. A journey of discovery that has led the two food professionals into rage baking and the transformation of butter, flour and fury. After all, as Alford points out: "It’s ok to be angry – there are a lot of things to be angry about."
Their recently published cookbook Rage Baking: The Transformative Power of Flour, Sugar and Women's Voices (February 2020, Tiller Press, Simon & Schuster), encourages women to punch bread, roll out pie crusts and balance sweetness with acidity. It arrives at a time when the world is consumed by the coronavirus pandemic, as public life closes down and people are asked to stay at home.
"Not the best time to publish a book," the duo joke. Contrarily, it might just turn out to be a more poignant time than ever. Flour and yeast were among the first ingredients to fly off the shelves as people prepared for self-isolation in citywide lockdowns, from Milan to New York. "I did a drive-by out of my window and give a friend my yeast in Brooklyn,” Alford reveals. “Yeah, yeast is the new drug!” chips in Maine based Gunst who has been in lockdown for nine days, and admits to baking every single day as a means of keeping sane and grounded.
Image: Katherine Alford and Kathy Gunst
The friends and seasoned culinary professionals, who've authored over 30 books between them, knew they didn't want this to be any ordinary cookbook. Perhaps fittingly, it arrives at an extraordinary time. The ‘political cookbook’ collects over 50 pastry recipes interspersed with inspirational essays, reflections, poems, and interviews with well-known bakers and impassioned women and activists, from 94-year-old Betty Fussel, with her amazing spice cookie recipe, to emerging young writers like Von Diaz.
The idea for the book first came about when Gunst started what she calls ‘rage baking’ as she watched the senate grill Dr Christine Blasey Ford during the Kavanagh hearings in the fall of 2018. "It filled me with such anger I found myself each night in my kitchen baking ridiculous quantities of cakes, cookies, pies and then the next day of the hearings, doing the same thing," she explains.
Photo: Lemon pound cake recipe (here's the recipe)
However, the term ‘rage baking’ goes back much further than that. "During the revolutionary war, when American women didn’t have the right to vote, they were baking election cakes,” says Gunst. “They were these very dense, fruit-heavy cakes and it was a way for women to express themselves in the kitchen through baking at a time when their voices were not heard. You see during the civil war there were secret kitchens where women were baking to help to raise money for activists and people fighting in the south."
There has been some controversy surrounding the ownership of the term, which the duo are pragmatic about as after all, writing about rage can also incite rage, as Alford explains. "We realise that there was a missed opportunity for us in terms of identifying the context of rage baking. But we don’t see this as an exclusive ownership thing. Nobody owns rage baking, nobody owns comfort food. We think of this as being more inclusive than exclusive."
The writing and the storytelling in the book are designed to help enrich the recipes. "They are each so powerful, some will make you cry, some will make you laugh," reflects Gunst. Alford references the amazing lemon pound cake recipe and poem sent in by America Test Kitchen's Elle Simone - a testament to her great grandmother, Anne, and family during the great migration up to Detroit, when she would always send this pound cake as a way of connecting with her family in the north.
"If you read that at home while the cake’s baking in the oven, it makes it just that more powerful," says Gunst. Her hope is that women will take the time in between the dough-rising or cake-baking to read one of these essays or interviews, and that they will potentially be motivated to become involved with a cause that they believe in deeply.
But, can cake really be political? Is there power in flour and sugar? "Women took those election cakes as a way of seducing men into hearing their point of view," Alford points out.
"Cakes have really transformed in recent years into something delicious and something that you can share, but also as a means of expression," adds Gunst. "We have also noticed that cakes, sheet, cupcakes and cookies have become blank canvasses for women to write messages about issues involving reproductive rights or political rights, or just women’s right in general. They're writing messages instead of piping out beautiful flowers."
Photo: Tahini Chocolate Chip Cookies by Kathy Gunst (here's the recipe)
So, what do they think will be the effect of coronavirus on baking culture as we witness an outpouring of free online cooking classes? "I think that this is a really interesting time to think about another renaissance in-home cooking,” says Gunst. “The restaurants are shuttered. Take-out, for the most part, doesn’t exist. Bakeries are closed. People really have to rely on their own kitchen. People are locked in their house and they have no choice but to learn how to cook. So I’m hoping that baking and home cooking becomes something that people realise is not only easier than they thought, but very fulfilling spiritually and in terms of nourishment."
But while we can explore the transformative power of creating something sweet, and the cathartic process of baking, does it actually cure rage? Gunst explains: "We’re not telling women if you get back in the kitchen and start baking you’re going to feel all better, and your rage will subside, and your anger will disappear. That’s not the message of this book. We’re talking about using rage as a way of sharing stories, and sharing recipes and building community. This idea that whatever you’re feeling - you’re not alone."
"This book says 'let's take some of that feeling and that passion, and let's try to turn it into something sweet'. Let’s try to work together and help each other, and keep our voices as part of a community. That feels so important right now," says Gunst.
It's a fitting call to action that comes at a moment when the therapeutic qualities of kneading and pounding are being embraced more than ever.