The Depressed Cake Shop at Suzzle

greyscale_topviewI promised a more in-depth post earlier this week on this subject, so here we are. Honestly?  I’ve been putting it off to an extent, because I want to do it justice and also, perhaps, because I don’t necessarily want to have to tell the story as often as I may have to if all my lovely regular customers ask me – not unreasonably – “why here, why you?” As you’ve probably gathered, I have personal reasons for being involved in this project. Just because I’m prepared to speak up, doesn’t make it less painful, but if I remain silent I perpetuate the problem of people not talking about mental health. So here goes. This won’t necessarily make for light reading: consider this a ‘trigger’ warning, if triggers are something you have to watch for.

greyscale_cake, greyscale cake with grey ombre icing

The Depressed Cake Shop is the idea of Miss Cakehead. When it comes to charity cake pop-ups, she’s got form: I first met her at the London Cakes for Japan pop-up, then at the Geek Cake Shop, and the formula works. Keep it short and – pretty much of necessity – sweet and, most important of all, make sure your theme or concept is strong, while leaving room for creativity.

So: short (3 days for the London shop) and sweet (cakes, biscuits, macarons, I could go on …) and a theme which has been strong enough to raise eyebrows, as all of the cakes will be grey on the outside. Yes, of course we know that not everyone’s experience of depression in particular, or mental illness in general, can be characterised by the colour grey. But we wanted to make an impact, and the one thing you can guarantee is that grey cakes turn heads.

Grey is good for a number of reasons. It works for those who feel their mental health issues have leached all colour out of their lives. It works for those for whom a latent mental health problem is ever lurking in the shadows, waiting to catch them unawares and drag them under again. It works because most of us naturally try to avoid the ‘nutter on the bus’, even though they’re just another human being. And it will work because one of the first things anyone says on seeing a grey cake is “why is that cake grey?”, and this gives people an opening to discuss mental health as an issue, instead of sweeping it back into the shadows.

For a lot of us involved in this project, mental illness and baking are linked: a lot of us turn to baking when we’re feeling low. Some of us even started baking because they were ill and needed something simple as a focus. And there is genuinely something very therapeutic about baking. I have, for years, turned to my kitchen and cooked, savoury or sweet, because I get some relief in the creation of something that, in and of itself, is goodness, love, nurture – sometimes even beauty – when all I feel I am is ugliness, pain and a drain on all around me. And being part of this project has made me realise I’m not alone in this. Being one of some 800+ people involved in Depressed Cake Shops all around the world is somehow simultaneously wonderful, humbling, sad and inspiring.

As a group, we’ve had some mixed reactions to the concept – some comments on this Guardian article seem to have missed the point, for example – and I felt obliged to respond. To quote my comment (as meelzebub):

The target audience for this pop-up is the public at large, not specifically those affected by mental illness, although they’re naturally also welcome. The point of The Depressed Cake Shop is that there is still massive stigma encountered by the mentally ill, and it’s mostly discussed as something that happens to other people. Some of us lose jobs even for admitting there’s a problem. Some people never seek help because they’re afraid to admit to a weakness. Some of us learn to shut up because if we once admit it to someone, or if a suicide attempt is leaked to ‘friends’ and family by someone well-meaning, we have to endure the pity – even if intended as sympathy – of others, some of whom genuinely care and want to help, others who are secretly hoping you’ll freak in front of them so they can partake of the drama they imagine associated with a melt-down, and still others who are terrified that what you’ve got might be catching.

And even so, I’m hiding behind ‘some of us’. Yes, I lost a job for telling my boss I had been prescribed anti-depressants and needed to cut my working hours to something closer to 60, instead of 75. I’ve had to face a family party comprised mostly of people I’d never met (my boyfriend’s aunt’s birthday, IIRC), who knew I’d tried to kill myself a couple of weeks previously. It’s one hell of a first impression, and it endured for years. Small wonder those of us with ‘issues’ hesitate to open up and talk about them.

Getting treatment has not always been easy, but I have a good support network who have helped me fight for what was needed, and in particular a husband who has been tireless in trying to get to the bottom of things. 15 years and a lot of pain later, and we finally have a diagnosis. I have borderline personality disorder. Frankly, it explains a lot.

But I’m in danger of straying from my point. Cooking and baking have, on occasion, very literally saved my life, giving me an outlet for emotions I couldn’t handle. Most importantly, it gave me a way of translating something enormously negative into something positive. The lovely Emmeline, one of our customers in the shop, has said that she likes our food because it’s clear that it’s made with love. She’s right, but perhaps more so than she knew.

Hence another part of my comment in the Grauniad:

If these pop-ups – there will be several across the country – tell only one person who was feeling desperate that there is help, and that it’s OK to need it, and gives them the means to access it, or gives them the courage to speak up so someone else can help them get the treatment they need instead of topping themselves, I would personally consider that a bloody good result. If, as is likely, it gets more people thinking and talking about mental health issues in general, and in its own small way starts normalising them for those touched by the event so depression et al become as acceptable to talk about as, say, arthritis, migraine or the common cold, then that’s also a result that’s worth having, and all of us involved will feel our efforts have been worthwhile.

I’m one of the 1 in 4 that gets mentioned in every campaign about mental health. I’m told I don’t look obviously mentally ill, whatever that may mean, and yet my mental illness has, on occasion, been damn nigh fatal. And I’m one of the lucky ones. This is why Suzzle is hosting the Depressed Cake Shop from 2-4 August this year.  Proceeds will be going to CALM, and to the establishment of a new charity to provide baking therapy.



Shades of grey

While I’ll be back in a couple of days to say more about this project, I thought it was probably wise to confirm here that Suzzle will indeed be hosting the rather wonderful Depressed Cake Shop from 2-4 August.  This is the lovely Miss Cakehead’s charity project for the year, and it’s struck a chord not only here in London, but in places all over the UK, the US, and now possibly even in Australia.

So why the shades of grey?  Because every single cake, biscuit and macaron sold will be grey.  This is a pop-up that is close to my heart for a number of reasons, and it will be held not only to raise funds for CALM, but also to raise awareness in general of mental health issues and spark discussion.  Too often, people don’t talk about their mental health problems until they’ve become very serious or, in the saddest cases, until it is quite literally too late to save them.  We’re hoping this will go some small way to change that.

This is one of the rare occasions where we will be selling cakes with gluten in, but there will still be gluten and lactose free cakes available as well as  – I believe – some vegan cakes, too.  So pop the dates in your diary: it’ll be on for three days, including a Saturday and Sunday, and this much deliciousness in a good cause should not be missed 🙂

Gluten-free Heroes Part 2: Dove’s Farm

My second gluten-free hero this week is Dove’s Farm.  It’s fair to say that, without them, my diet would be a lot less varied and baking would take a lot longer.  This is because I would have to blend flours myself in order to get the right characteristics and, frankly, I simply don’t have the time or the energy to be doing that most of the time, especially given how much I bake.  So I probably wouldn’t bother.  Yes, I know, other GF flour blends are available, but since so many of the prescribables contain either lactose or soya, they’re not going to work for me, and those that don’t contain any nasties somehow don’t result in the lovely texture I get with the Dove’s Farm flours.

They don’t just do flours, either: they have a range of breakfast cereals that appeals to my 5 year old, even thought he doesn’t have to follow a gluten-free diet, which is praise indeed, and must be a godsend for parents of coeliac children.  Their chocolate stars really do taste very good, as well as being appealingly packaged.  And don’t get me started on the biscuits… once the packet’s opened, that’s it!

I’m less keen on their pasta, which you’ll find used by restaurant chains like Zizzi, but then I’m not all that gone on corn pasta in general.

Anyway, if you’ve ever tasted one of my cakes and not been able to tell the difference between that and a cake made with wheat flour, it’s at least in part because of these guys. Thank you 🙂

Coeliac awareness week is coming!

14-20 May 2012 is Coeliac Awareness Week in the UK.  Now, I know, somebody somewhere is always marking something, but since coeliac disease is something that affects me personally, as well as many other people who have yet to be diagnosed, and who could have a much better life if they were, this is one awareness campaign I feel honour bound to support.

If you’re wondering what on earth coeliac disease is, it’s an auto-immune condition that is reckoned to affect some 1% of the population, many of whom remain undiagnosed.  Left untreated, the malabsorption that is the result of coeliac disease can leave sufferers exposed to such nasties as osteoporosis, bowel cancer, etc, as well as fertility problems and, at a more basic level, some pretty unpleasant gastro-intestinal symptoms.  All because of the body’s response to eating or ingesting gluten.

The good and bad news about this, is that there is only one known treatment for coeliac disease at the moment, and that’s a gluten-free diet.  It’s good news, because it’s nice and clear.  It’s bad news because – despite how easy it can be to cater for gluten-free diets – so few places offer a decent selection of gluten-free food, or only offer it with a risk of cross-contamination that negates the good intention of offering gluten-free menu items in the first place.  And yes, cross-contamination is a real problem: I’ve been made ill in the past by a few crumbs lurking in the butter, for example, even though I’ve conscientiously followed a gluten-free diet for years.  It’s also slightly scary – and very frustrating – just how many products seem to contain gluten for no apparent reason, when a simple adjustment could make them safe for more people to eat.

While the quality of foods in the free-from aisle of the supermarket has improved a lot over the last few years, there are still manufacturers who appear to think that we ditched any sense of taste or texture on receipt of our diagnosis.  My carrot cake, for example, has beaten carrot cakes made with wheat flour in open competition, so I know from personal experience that you can make things as good as – or better than – their gluten-containing counterparts, if you try.  But you wouldn’t necessarily know this from some of the offerings out there, which are dry and crumbly and lacking in flavour.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not ungrateful, and I’m glad that these products are available, even the not very nice ones, because it is at least an option when you’re hard pressed to find anything to eat on occasion, and the poor quality can act as a catalyst for others to improve on what’s out there.  It’s a win-win of sorts.  But still.

Gluten-free food can be excellent.  At the risk of shameless self-promotion, ask anyone who has enjoyed a Suzzle cake, most of whom have bought the cakes without knowing they were gluten-free… and then come back and bought more.  It can be done, and without filling the food full of junk like soya flour, palm oil and ingredients known better by their number than their name.  So, for the next week or so, I’ll be using this blog to celebrate some companies who are making or supplying really good, gluten-free food, and making the lives of coeliacs like myself much richer and more enjoyable as a result.

In the meantime, if you’d like to know more about coeliac disease, please do visit the Coeliac UK web site, where you can find information, recipes and support the excellent work the charity does.

You gotta have faith

No, despite the season, the title of this post is not a religious message.  After all, I live and work in one of the largest Muslim areas in the country and am myself Christian, and count among my friends people who have identified as everything from Hindu to Jewish, via Jedi and Pastafarian.  Whether you look to Jesus for your guidance or the Great Spaghetti Monster, though, one thing we all hope to be able to do is place faith in other humans to be decent and behave towards others as we would like them to behave towards us.

When I opened the shop, I was obviously in the full glow of the fact that we’d managed to do it, to achieve this dream and be able to take it forward to become something that would help both us and other people – one small shop where it’s safe for coeliacs and the lactose intolerant to eat may not change the world in one go, but enough people get the idea that you don’t have to sacrifice quality, texture and flavour along with the gluten and the lactose in your diet, mainstream manufacturers will eventually get the message and we might have a more enjoyable time buying and consuming our food.

Yet I digress.  Obviously, I knew the art on the walls had a value, as does the cash in the till and the food and coffee we sell.  But with the exception of the cash they’re not the kind of items that tend to get nicked, we don’t have any Picasso, Holbein or Matisse on the walls – anyone wanting to see the work of the artists on our walls can easily do so walking round the East End for an hour or so.  This was probably naive of me.  I’ve been blessed with a few weeks of having more or less nothing but lovely people coming into the shop and enjoying what we have in there, whether they buy anything or not.  Yes, there was one woman who tried to get me to fall for a note-changing scam, a bloke who tried to pass off a fake £50 note and another who spent his time in the shop trying to scope out my till, but you expect there to be a bit of this and I was prepared for it to happen.

Yesterday, on the other hand, I was well and truly caught out.  Two young women came into the shop and, after a fair bit of effort on their part, they managed to distract me enough for one of them to steal my HP Touchpad, a 40th birthday present from my brother.  The worst of it was, I had a feeling they were a bit ‘off’, but decided to treat them as normal, upright humans rather than listening to the alarm bells.  Not that the alarm bells would have done much good under the circumstances, because until the theft had occurred there was nothing concrete I could have used to kick them out of the shop, and they were relying on my basic decency for their plan to work.

The police response has been disappointing – understandably so, really, since we’re hardly talking about the Great Train Robbery here – and based more along the lines that I should be able to claim on the insurance, rather than taking note of the fact that the girls will have been caught on CCTV entering and leaving my shop and might be identified and apprehended as a result.  I’ve had to lobby quite strongly to get them to send out a fingerprint team to collect evidence against the girls in question: it was only on reminding them that the crime committed was cynical, premeditated and carried out by two professional thieves operating as a team, instead of an opportunistic grab and run, that they eventually agreed to do so.

I was angry at the time it happened, and not a little shaken.  I was upset at the loss of my brother’s very kind gift to me.  And I was furious at myself for being fooled into it happening in the first place.  By 4pm I couldn’t face being open any more and decided to close the shop early and go out for a walk instead to clear my head.

Today, I’m still angry, but only with the thieves.  Being angry with myself serves no useful purpose, and would only be resolved by my changing my behaviour in the future.  Do I need to be more circumspect about the people coming into my shop?  Apparently I do.  But if I start treating every person who enters my shop as a potential thief, those women will have stolen more than a computer I can easily replace.  They’ll have stolen a friendly welcome, they’ll have stolen the pleasure I had seeing people come into my shop, that brought a genuine smile to my face.  They’ll have stolen my dream that had only just become reality, and I’m not prepared to let them have that.

So I choose to have faith in humanity.  I choose to believe that the vast majority of people coming into my shop are decent, law-abiding citizens.  I choose to keep on taking pleasure in people deciding to come into my shop… but with systems and processes that prevent any recurrence of yesterday’s events so that anyone less deserving of my faith in basic human decency decides their efforts would be wasted.

Happy Easter, everyone.