When Life Handed Tess Wilson Something To Protest About, She Started Making Cakes

Tess Wilson

For most people, dessert isn't synonymous with protesting — but, then again, most people aren't Tess Wilson. That's why Wilson founded ProtestCakes alongside fellow baker Leah Rosenberg. They saw a lot of wrong in the world they wished to right, but weren't exactly sure how they fit into the equation when it came to making a difference in the world.

In conversation with Emma Lord, Tess Wilson talks about the impetus behind these delicious forms of boycott and why it's so important to make your voice heard — whether it be through your social media or your very own kitchen.

Emma Lord: What inspired ProtestCakes?

Tess Wilson: In January of 2017, I was on a plane going from Chicago to visit Leah [Rosenberg, former ProtestCakes co-baker] in San Francisco. It was the day that news broke of Trump's first [travel] ban. People all around the country were flooding airports with protests. I was planning on joining the protests when I landed, but I was in the air thinking, "What can I bring to this?" I was committed to calling my reps every day, signing petitions, and going to protests whenever possible, but I also wondered, "What are my unique skills that I could use to help?" The idea of ProtestCakes just came to me.

Sometimes I'll read something, the idea comes to me fully formed, and an hour later, I've got a cake in the oven, decorated.

The concept was that we would make cakes in response to news, events, or things that were being voted upon. We'd share them on Instagram and at protests and fundraisers.

I checked Instagram, and nobody was doing that. I knew I needed Leah to do it with me. She and I had baked together for years, and made pastries based on what was currently on display in [SFMOMA, where they worked together]. I explained it, and she was in.

And so a week later, we had our first event at the “No Ban, No Wall” protest in San Francisco's Civic Center. We made the Seven Nations cake, which had the key meaningful ingredients from each of the nations on that travel ban list at the time, and served it to people there. We thought, "This brings people together. This gives a little sustenance, and nourishment, and maybe even a bit of joy, to people who are being made to fight for their right to be in a country that they have a right to be in."

I flew back to rural Illinois, where I live, but we just kept the project going. Then Leah left the project at the beginning of 2018 because she's so amazingly busy. She had a book come out called Color Collected Handbook. So I still consult her from time to time, but she was definitely too busy for the daily mess of it.

EL: Tell me a bit about what goes on behind the scenes.

TW: I have no set routine. Sometimes I'll read something, the idea comes to me fully formed, and an hour later, I've got a cake in the oven, decorated. Sometimes, I need to really ruminate on a concept for a long time, especially with more tragic issues — the Stolen Birthday Cakes [a series of birthday cakes made for every child killed in a mass shooting in 2018] took me at least a month to come up with.

EL: What has the response to protest cakes been like?

TW: It's been really fun. We've been very lucky to basically have zero hostility. No threats, no tax, no doxxing, no any of that that so many people, unfortunately, have to deal with online. I've mostly just gotten this really great sense of community, and people rooting each other on.

EL: Tell us a bit about that process of researching and creating your cake and caption.

TW: Some of it involves a ton of research. The ingredients are really meaningful. I'm thinking of things like the Seven Nations cake I mentioned, or the Contraceptives cake, or the Vaccination cake. I did a ton of research on the Contraceptives cake about what materials were used around the world to prevent pregnancy before reliable contraception was available, and put all of those into a cake.

Sometimes, it's just a matter of writing something on a cake that I feel is important. And sometimes it is deep dives into trying to find the number of a bill that's up for a vote. So sometimes the cake is simple, but the caption takes a lot of work. Or maybe the caption is simple but the cake took hours of really interesting research. So it just really depends.

EL: What is the adulting rule that you break most often?

TW: I am always, always listening to something. No matter what I'm doing. Cleaning the house, editing photos, baking, I'm always listening to something. Most adults don't do that; they're alone with their thoughts. I think because the world is driving me so crazy. It's not like I want to forget about that at all for a second, but I yell at my rep every day about it, I give money to RAICES and ACLU. Sometimes I need a little distraction because otherwise I'll just lie on the floor and cry. I need to be able to get out of my thoughts for moment. Right now I'm on a Nicole Byer kick, so I'm listening to Why Won't You Date Me? and watching Nailed It on Netflix. Listening to podcasts and stuff helps me keep going.

EL: What do you think is the rule that people should break more often in your field?

TW: I think they should embrace dietary limitations, because there is so much fun to be had when you start playing with alternative flours, or things for vegans. I happen to be vegan, so I'm biased. But I think limitations inspire creativity. I think it's not holding you back, it's pushing you forward to come up with something new and delicious.

It started as a joke, whenever one of us was frustrated or had something to get off our chest. Make a cake about it. These days, it's really helpful to keep myself motivated.

EL: Who is your rule-breaking icon?

TW: Janelle Monáe. Just for everything that she does and is. She's endlessly inspiring. In baking, I would say Lyndsay Sung of Coco Cake Land. She makes the most ridiculously beautiful cakes that are absolutely catnip. But then you read the caption, and she's talking about trans rights or something, and I think that is so incredibly powerful, and such a beautiful way to use a large platform. She's able to speak to people that might not ever otherwise come across the things she's saying. ProtestCakes is rather niche — there's an element of preaching to the choir — but she reaches such a broad audience of people.

EL: What is your rule-breaking motto?

TW: I would say it's something that Leah and I used to say to each other in the museum, which is, "Make a cake about it." It started as a joke, whenever one of us was frustrated or had something to get off our chest. Make a cake about it.

These days, it's really helpful to keep myself motivated, and to channel my frustration/rage into something tangible, and ideally helpful. It can feel so overwhelming and daunting, like nothing you can do can help. So if I can just say, "OK, here's a new story, here's an idea, go make a cake about it." While it's baking, call your reps. Put up the caption with information for people so they can call their reps if they want to. By that time, I've worked through some of that frustration. I've done something, however tiny. I'm not saying I'm saving the world. I just called my reps and made a cake. But it keeps me going, and helps me on to the next step of my day.

EL: Do you have imposter syndrome ever, and if you do, how do you push past it?

TW: A little. Feeling like, "Who do I think I am, this is frivolous. Cake's not going to change the world." And then I think, "If it helps one person call Congress, or if it reminds one person to sign up for health care, or if it makes one person feel heard, or recognized, then that's a good thing to have done."

The other thing would be something I addressed in a cake recently. When Leah and I started this, we were very aware that we were two cis-gender, neuro-typical, non-disabled, white ladies. That we have tons of privilege, and that there is so much in the world that we'll never experience because of that privilege. So I can occasionally feel a little bit paralyzed, like I don't want to screw something up. I don't want to make things worse for somebody who already has is harder than I do. So I just try to just constantly be learning from people that have a much different experience than I do, and to try to put those things I learn into my cakes.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.