I love to bake. My favourite thing about autumn is that I have an excuse to make my mum’s towering apple cake again. So, I always thought, once my first child was in elementary school, I would delight in taking part in bake sale fundraisers. This is my jam!
Instead, I dread them.
Look, I’m not a monster. I’m not opposed to children going on field trips. I do not imagine that funds for football uniforms materialise out of thin air. So I dutifully show up to each bake sale with a tray of sugary, homemade kid bait. (Also, um, it would be awkward if the mum who is the author of two cookbooks and who runs a cooking website came empty-handed.)
Still, bake sales trouble me.
They feel like a holdover from a time when many mums didn’t work (even in 2018, it’s always the mums) and it was presumed they had loads of time to bake cookies for children. That’s what we imagined full-time child rearing entailed.
Bake sales can, unintentionally, perpetuate some deeply seated sexist stereotypes, the same ones that compel us to ask potential first ladies and female candidates for their favourite cookie recipe. Because all women have a signature baked good! Because, you know, they’re women! Women love being domestic, and baking for other people is a natural extension of their skills!
Women who don’t have the time or inclination to bake at home and who bring packaged cookies (gasp) are seen as stomping on a Great American Tradition.
What are we selling at bake sales, anyway? Are we advertising our culinary prowess? Demonstrating our tireless commitment to the well-being of our offspring? Or is the goal to raise money? Children happily buy cupcakes from a store, so why do we care that nobody in a home kitchen slaved over softened butter at 11pm to make them?
Actually, if you look closely at the economics, they just don’t add up. We might spend $10 (Dh36.78) on ingredients to make 18 cupcakes that sell for $2 each. Thinking of this $26 as profit presumes that the hours spent shopping and baking and packing things up and taking them to school, and possibly selling and cleaning up afterward, don’t have value. Volunteering your time and energy to something important is laudable. But neither the ingredients nor the labour are “free”, and many parents can’t afford to give them away.
This is not an invective against people who love to make banana bread and have the time to do so. But most people do not. Most parents struggle to get even the most basic parenting tasks finished in the vanishing margin of time between the end of the workday and children’s bedtimes. It feels crazy to take time away from helping with homework, or actually making dinner, to spend hours on a fundraiser.
I worry that we don’t scrutinise the financial reality of bake sales because we like the optics too much — the performative domesticity, the retro charm.
It’s frustrating to have to stay up until 1am baking brownies if you’re a person who has the radical hope that our taxes should fully cover education, classroom supplies and other necessary enrichments. But that is not happening, and so the bake sale (too) must tap into our limited reserves.
You don’t need to tell me to chill out. Of course, my children love arriving at school and finding out there’s a bake sale in the yard. I’ll make my one-bowl pumpkin bread; it always sells. I just won’t think too hard when I do, so the charade doesn’t crumble before the wave of cinnamon-scented nostalgia kicks in.
— New York Times News Service
Deb Perelman is a home cook, photographer and New York Times best-selling author.