When community organizer Eliza Gonring helped plan a bake sale this spring to raise money for Illinois prisoners and the formerly incarcerated, she hit an unexpected milestone: So many bakers signed up, she had to start turning volunteers away.
This month, it happened again. She hit capacity for a Saturday baking fundraiser at Haymarket House in Uptown with more than two dozen volunteer bakers planning everything from moon pies to filled za’atar rolls.
As communications and community organizing coordinator for the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project, Gonring has tapped into the idea of baking for a cause. She’s helped plan three such events in the past year to raise money for prison-related causes in Illinois, attracting skilled home bakers who want to push themselves in the kitchen, meet others and do something good.
There’s a rich history of such events, from community rent parties to the Montgomery Bus Boycott bake sales of the 1950s, in which women cooked to raise money to fund a lengthy Black boycott of the city busing system after the arrest of Rosa Parks.
The Aug. 13 bake sale Gonring helped organize will be hosted by the Haymarket House in Uptown event to mark Black August, which originated in the California prison system in the 1970s to commemorate those who fought for Black liberation.
Gonring sees the Black August bake sale as a tool of community organizing, with volunteers, bakers and buyers mobilizing. Proceeds for this event will go to ensure prison commissary funds can be replenished.
“Everyone has skill sets that are important for movement work,” Gonring said. “Bake sales are a really good way for folks that don’t necessarily think of themselves as able to participate in movement work to identify ways that their specific skill set can plug into stuff.”
Cần Sa Bakery owner Lorraine Nguyen is among those who signed up. “It gives me a chance to get to know a lot of cottage bakers, which I love,” Nguyen said. “It also gives us a chance to work with people whose morals are in line with my own.” Nguyen will be preparing Cần Sa’s signature bake, Thai tea snickerdoodles, alongside a vegan pandan coconut swirl.
Baker Elon Sloan, who uses they/them pronouns, is preparing a sweet basil white chocolate babka not just out of creativity, but necessity to avoid waste — they bought basil bunches for cheap at the grocery store and won’t be able to use it all fast enough. Through experimentation, Sloan learned they could swap water in a brioche recipe with basil syrup, and then layer in white chocolate in doughy twists to create a ribboned, savory-sweet loaf.
“I just try to keep an eye out for what sort of community calls go out from causes that I support,” Sloan said. “I thought this seemed especially fun because I’ve been a home baker for a few years, but I haven’t [participated in] any bake sales.”
The need to help provide commissary funds has become dire since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, due to what Gonring said is shortages of soap and hygienic supplies. “[Prisoners] are not provided enough to keep themselves clean, during a pandemic especially. It really makes a difference having extra money.”
The Haymarket House sale is one of a growing number of recent Chicagoan antiracist and cause-centered bake sales and bake-a-thons, including this year’s Filipinx Lokal Meryenda Box and Azn Pryde Market. Pastries are, after all, a wonderful way to get people to linger, sign petitions, plan the next event and trade recipes. Said Nguyen: “Every meal tastes better when you share with somebody.”
If you go: The Black August Bakesale and Haymarket Used Book Sale takes place on Aug.13 at Haymarket House (800 W. Buena Ave.) from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.. Admission is free, and 27 bakers will have products for sale, ranging from $2 cookies to entire pies. There will be no on-site parking, so visitors are encouraged to take public transit.
Pearse Anderson is a freelance writer based in Chicago.