Eating in America has always been political – the food systems of the land of the free and home of the brave were founded on the backs of the enslaved. And yet as the year from hell continues to uncover centuries-old pain, there are plenty of folks who would rather that chefs, bakers and restaurateurs just stick to food.
“After the day of the inauguration I attended the Women’s March and posted a picture holding a protest sign,” says Richmond baker Arley Arrington. “I got so many angry messages saying, ‘I’m just here for the cupcakes.’”
Arrington was there for way more than the cupcakes, though, and ever since has made her message and mission clear: She’s creating a space for people who don’t have the luxury of being universally accepted.
Richmond – along with cities across all 50 states – has been in the midst of daily protests for more than a week. The protests started as a response to the May 25 killing of George Floyd, who died when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd was handcuffed, face down.
“The last month has been really horrific, with black people dying at a higher rate [from coronavirus] and police killings,” Arrington says. “It’s overwhelming and saddening but it’s not shocking to me. I don’t think it’s changed much of my view of the state of our country.”
Arrington makes jam tarts and brown butter sea salt blondies and beautifully latticed pies. But she also uses colorful piping and edible markers as her pen and her sword – “Black Lives Matter,” “My Body My Choice,” “Families Belong Together,” “Gun Reform Now.” She still receives virtual flack in her comment section – it seems lots of keyboard warriors are deeply offended by “God is a Woman” Valentine’s Day cookies – but Arrington brushes them off.
While the Orange County native did not set out to be an Instagram famous baker, her professional background has always been in food service and nonprofits – it makes sense that she’s here. When she noticed a glaring gap between the money she was making at a fine-dining restaurant and the money she was making doing nonprofit work, Arrington knew she had to rethink her career path.
“It got a little bit depressing,” she says. “Running programs for elementary and middle school girls from lower income, predominantly African American neighborhoods … there was a difference from my fine-dining paycheck and the work I was doing in the community I really cared about.”
Arrington asked herself: How do I use capitalism for social values? As we’ve witnessed firsthand this week, the country is wont to value property over people. But Arrington hopes she can mold that system, craft it to serve human beings over price-tagged, inanimate objects. Her goal is to run her own business, providing job opportunities for women from disenfranchised backgrounds. She will create a space for black people, for the LGBTQ+ community and for the differently abled.
“In school I always took a lot of art classes, but after college I didn’t have access to art studios as easily, so baking became this avenue for creativity for me,” she says. She admits that while it’s “intense and regimented,” there is always, at the end, pure joy. “I started baking cakes for co-workers at the nonprofit because there was no birthday fund and people were buying Food Lion cakes. I said ‘No! People need a nice birthday cake.’”
Is there anything as inherently good and kind as a homemade baked good? Thousands, maybe millions of people around the world tried their hand at intense home baking projects during quarantine lockdown. Alone together, novice bakers shared sourdough starter recipes and tips and tricks for how to bake sans flour. Baking became universal catharsis and sharing the results created, for a moment, a sense of connectedness.
Arrington is still in the moment, has been capturing and sharing the energy of a perfectly baked loaf for years now.
The baker moved to Richmond from Charlottesville in 2018 to help her spread her wings – her college town had gotten a bit “stifling” – and runs Arley Cakes as a virtual bakeshop(facebook.com/arley.cakes). She’s continuing to build her social media platform and has garnered hundreds of new followers in the past few days.
“I’m hoping that in years to come people are putting their money and their time where their mouth is,” Arrington says. While the countrywide turnout to grassroots protests has been heartening, she hopes businesses will continue to assess their role in systemic racism beyond posting a solitary black square. She hopes that they’ll be loud and proud and bold enough to capture more than just cupcakes.
Keep an eye out for Arley Cakes at farmers markets and pop-ups in the next few months and place a special order by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.