3 years old – maybe time for a catch-up!

I’ve neglected this blog. For many reasons, some good, some less so. Suzzle is still on Brick Lane, holding on despite the recent introduction of new coffee shops in the area competing with us. This area doesn’t have massive footfall, so new entrants compete hard with us, but we’re holding our own, and are possibly doing better than ever in some ways.

One of those ways is a new partnership with the lovely people from In FARM We Trust. One of their co-founders, Dom, has been a customer for a while, enjoying occasional slices of brownie as a treat. But when he found out – pretty much by accident – that everything we do is gluten free, he started talking to us about the current project. The long and the short of it, though, is that they have a food-to-go concession in Tesco’s Goodge Street store, and are stocking our cakes, bacon pasties, and granola.

Suzzle cakes and pasties at Tesco

Suzzle cakes and pasties at FARM, Tesco Goodge Street

It’s early days, obviously, but we’re enjoying the opportunity to bring our products to a wider audience, and hoping that this first branch is as successful as it deserves to be, since this will mean rolling out to more branches over the next few months.

For all that this is a positive move, it’s fair to say that it took a while to sink in. Since April 2014, I’ve been in treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder, which has been taking me out of the shop and into group therapy sessions twice a week. It’s hard work, but something that has been beneficial. With just 6 months left to go, I’m happy that I’ve made some progress. I may still have BPD, but I handle events and personal interactions more easily than before, and there is now hope of recovery. There is talk of doing another DCS at some point this year, though at Boxpark, not at Suzzle, and I’m looking forward to being part of that again, but stronger, and more able to offer hope that a mental health diagnosis does not have to mean the world coming to an end.

I’ve been doing media interviews since the DCS, however. I’ve sat twice on the BBC Breakfast sofa in Manchester to offer a different image of mental illness to the world, and challenge the idea that all mental health patients are dribbling loons. Sometimes we can be articulate, intelligent… and yet mentally ill. Radio interviews, a student film on mental illness, the WI magazine. It takes me out of my comfort zone by some margin, but for as long as it helps people understand better, and challenges the stigma that still remains, I’ll keep on doing it.

But here we are. We have a range in the shop that now includes 5 flavours of savoury gluten-free pasty, as approved by Gilbert and George, more cakes, new biscuits… and there’s more to come. Our next project is to make our products available over the internet, so we’re currently working out which ones survive best in the post, and how we can package them better so non-Londoners can also enjoy them. It’s a long process, but we’re looking forward to the end results.

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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.

md.

Hello fellow cake lovers!

Welcome to my blog!  I’m Melanie, and I make cakes.  Quite a lot of cakes, actually, as well as other nice things to eat.  While the cooking and baking have been going on for quite some time, I’ve not previously blogged about them, but that’s changing now.  While my family and friends love eating the results, they are – probably sensibly – less passionate about discussing such things.

And I’ll admit I’m on a bit of a mission.  Having been told by the docs I would have to stick to a gluten-free diet for the rest of my life, I quickly discovered that this would mean accepting some pretty poor substitute products if I wanted to eat the same kind of things I did before.  This was worrying, because I love my food.  I love textures and flavours and the amazing smells a little time and care can produce, and I wasn’t keen to compromise.  How hard could it be to reproduce the things I loved without including gluten in the process?

So began the journey.  I’ve met a few other coeliacs and people with a range of food intolerances since I started experimenting.  I’ve also found that most people assume that anything calling itself ‘free-from’ or ‘gluten-free’ will be sub-standard and less worth eating than its wheat, rye or barley-stuffed counterpart.  Fortunately, I’ve also surprised a lot of them by giving them a cake, letting them express their enjoyment, and then revealing that it was gluten-free.

I want to prove that gluten-free can be as delicious as ‘normal’ food.  I don’t think it’s acceptable for companies to set lower standards of flavour and texture for people with food intolerance than they do for those without.  It’s not good enough if customers say that a product is ‘not bad for something gluten-free’.  It’s either good or it isn’t.

I shall get off my soapbox now.  For those who’ve made it this far, thanks for reading – I hope to get to know a few of you as time goes on 🙂