(donuts inspired by the cover of) Thick

The book: Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom.

This week I finished Thick: And Other Essays by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom. Thick is a collection of essays that explore what it is to be a black woman in America. Each essay looks at how race intersects with aspects of society including socioeconomic status, profession, and ethnicity.

My first impression of Thick was that the writing style was academic and formal; this wasn’t entirely surprising since Dr. McMillan Cottom is an academic (she is a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University). Although the writing is formal at times, Dr. McMillan Cottom also writes poetically and accessibly throughout Thick. She perfectly sprinkles personal anecdotes throughout her essays, allowing the reader to connect abstract ideas to real peoples’ lived experiences.

I also found Thick to be enlightening and profound. Some people told me that Thick didn’t teach them anything they didn’t already know, but that was not my experience. This could be a reflection of my lack of expertise in the field of sociology, or perhaps my ignorance as a white woman in America (or, more likely, a combination of both). But even when Thick tackled concepts that I already understood at some level, I felt like I was learning something new: Dr. McMillan Cottom really dissects and examines the nuances of race in America, allowing me (and probably other readers) to process information and expand upon my perspectives that were previously shallow or one-dimensional.

So much of Thick was eye-opening and memorable, but one of the concepts that stuck with me most was that capitalism and racism serve each other in a positive feedback loop. This is tackled in the chapter “In the Name of Beauty,” where McMillan Cottom explains how “beauty isn’t actually what you look like; beauty is the preferences that reproduce the existing social order” (the same is true of most “lifestyle” preferences that are promoted by capitalism).

The other idea that stuck strongly with me was one that I already knew (in a shallow way) prior to reading Thick: that white men are more likely to be seen as competent in America, regardless of their level of expertise or their actual competence. Not only are white men viewed as competent, but social order forces women and people of color (especially women of color) into situations where they are likely to fail, resulting in people of power treating them as incompetent. This is explored in much more depth in the chapter “Dying to be Competent.” A major takeaway from this chapter was the importance of listening to people other than white men, especially women and non-binary people of color: because their social status often forces them into positions of less power, it is especially important that we do listen and take them seriously.

Overall, I highly recommend Thick. Dr. McMillan Cottom uses the perfect blend of academic and prosaic writing to illustrate issues of race in America. You can read an excerpt from the chapter “Dying to be Competent” here.

The bake: spice cake donuts with chocolate glaze.

I had a tough time choosing a bake inspired by Thick, mostly because the essays describing systemic racism in America (which I benefit from) did not exactly fuel my appetite for sweets. Eventually, I decided that I would make a shareable treat inspired by the cover of Thick. I ended up settling on donuts glazed with chocolate, and then drizzled with white and pink icing (to resemble the white and pink writing on the dark cover of the book).

The finished donut, next to the book cover that inspired it.

I baked these cake donuts from King Arthur Flour, then iced them in this chocolate glaze (also from KAF). I modified the donut recipe by adding a bit of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and cloves. Once the donuts were glazed and cool, I melted some white chocolate chips and drizzled that mixture over the donuts to get the finished, decorated donut. The pink drizzle is just the melted white chocolate with a drop of pink gel food coloring.

My verdict on the donuts is that they are tasty, but definitely not as “aesthetically pleasing” as I had wanted. I am okay with this, because as Dr. McMillan Cottom points out in “In the Name of Beauty,” beauty is a construct. What matters most to me is that the donuts taste good (which they do), so that my friends and co-workers can enjoy them.

(a raspberry mocha cake that isn’t) Hard to Love

The book: Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper.

I am currently going through a non-fiction phase, and Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper was the first book I read as part of this phase. Hard to Love is a compilation of essays, each of which tackles the topic of love in its various forms. Hopper writes about friendships, sisterhood, and the ways in which these bonds can form.

Hard to Love is a joy to read because Briallen Hopper is an exceptional writer. She is able to articulate her perspectives so well that, by the end of the book, I almost felt as though I knew her. Because Hopper expresses her points of view so eloquently, it is easy to empathize with her. Even when I didn’t necessarily agree with Hopper, I was able to consider new perspectives with so much more compassion. For example, in the chapter “Hoarding,” Hopper defends the practice of hoarding as a means of remembering others by holding on to their physical possessions. I doubt I’ll ever be pro-hoarding, but after reading this essay I no longer feel much negative judgment toward those who do hoard.

In addition to being beautifully written, Hard to Love is refreshing. Our society places so much value on romantic love that other types of love are often-overlooked, despite being equally (if not more) important. In “Lean On,” Hopper argues that it is okay to be dependent on friendships, explaining how she “learned to practice mutual, broadly distributed leaning: to depend on care that was neither compulsory nor conditional” with her friends. In “Young Adult Cancer Story” and “Coasting,” she writes about being part of a close-knit friend-group that formed over a mutual friend’s cancer diagnosis. In “Dear Octopus” and “On Sisters,” she discusses how familial relationships are complex, yet “sustain [themselves] through things that can end or prevent intimate friendships.”

All Hopper’s essays are thoughtful and gorgeously written, but my personal favorites were “Lean On” and “Tending My Oven,” probably because both instantly resonated with me. I loved “Lean On,” because it perfectly expressed my own love for constructing and maintaining meaningful “friendship shells” and “structures of togetherness” with others. “Tending My Oven,” an exploration of why people bake, at times felt like it was written for me (I know that it wasn’t): in this essay, Hopper explains how baking can both “[allow us] to be warm and sweet in a world that so often isn’t, and provide “a space of authenticity and generosity.” These were the chapters that resonated with me the most, but let me reiterate that all of Hopper’s essays are wonderful – even her ideas that don’t resonate with everyone are very thoughtfully written.

By the way, you can read the essay “Lean On” on Longreads!

The bake: (four-layer) raspberry mocha cake

As I mentioned above, Hopper’s essay “Tending My Oven” – an exploration of the practice of baking – strongly resonated with me. In addition to examining the reasons why some people love to bake, Hopper writes about her own favorite things to bake (which include apple bundt cake, chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter cream cheese frosting, and berry shortcake). Of all the baked goods Hopper mentions in “Tending My Oven,” the one that intrigued me most was “Seven-Layer Insomnia Cake with Bitterness Buttercream Frosting.” So I decided to make my own version of it.

To pay tribute to “insomnia,” I made my cake coffee-flavored (as coffee usually exacerbates my own tendency toward insomnia). I followed this recipe from my name is yeh, leaving out the cardamom. To pay tribute to “bitterness,” I modified the recipe’s frosting to be less sweet, and I added about 1 tbsp cocoa powder since dark chocolate, like coffee, is delightfully bitter.

The final cake: two layers of coffee cake separated by mocha buttercream frosting and raspberry jam, and covered in more mocha buttercream frosting.

The recipe that I followed yields two 9″ round cakes, and I ended up being too afraid to slice the cakes into thinner layers. So I merely sandwiched them with a layer of mocha buttercream frosting and a layer of raspberry jam in between. Then I frosted the whole thing with more mocha buttercream. So my cake has either two, four, or five layers depending on what you consider to be a “layer” in the context of cake. I consider both the frosting and jam in between the two cakes to be their own layers.

Regardless of the number of layers, this cake is great. The coffee flavor is strong, and well balanced by the raspberry jam filling. Also, because the cake is made with canola oil, it doesn’t dry out quickly. The best thing about this cake, however, was that I got to share it with coworkers, allowing me to be “warm and sweet” and to express “authenticity and generosity.”