Everybody is dealing with COVID-19 quarantines and restrictions in different ways. While there's no single right way to cope — social distancing and staying TF home aside — connecting with friends, family, and neighbors is a good place to start. You can contact your loved ones on your own, but you might also be curious how your favorite strangers in Pittsburgh are coping, so Pittsburgh City Paper is reaching out to artists, activists, workers, and makers to see how they're doing.
Today, it's author, artist, and cookie activist Jasmine M. Cho.
What’s your day-to-day routine like now?
My day-to-day as an entrepreneur was rarely ever predictable, but those ebbs and flows have definitely magnified now. When the pandemic began, I had just started making a shift in my career to focus on public speaking, but then I lost about 10 gigs that were lined up for me through the summer. I was actually still able to make the most of the stay-at-home order at first, taking it as an opportunity to catch up on some much-needed rest that I had longed for after an intensely busy and nonstop year last year.
But then I fell into a bit of a melancholy lull. I started questioning the value of my craft and was grappling with the sense of limbo I was in and the rising anti-Asian racism and violence I was constantly seeing in the news. May, being Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), completely shifted everything again for me. I had several work opportunities return that allowed me to share my cookie art in creative projects that not only helped me combat the emotional low I was in but also gave me a chance to encourage the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities at large. It's given me enough momentum and reconnection with my work to keep me creating regularly through this pandemic.
How is Yummyholic?
I've actually put Yummyholic on an official hiatus since the New Year started. I had been contemplating for a while whether I should separate out my social justice work from Yummyholic, because Yummyholic's original mission was simply to be an online bakery that provided, "Happy tummies, happy hearts." Last summer, I received an invite to demo and interview at the Smithsonian (National Museum of American History), then minutes later I received a request to make genital cookies for a bachelorette party. It was such a stark juxtaposition at that point in my career that I decided to redefine the work I wanted to do and be known for doing. I'm now simply working as me, under my full name — Jasmine M. Cho — and only offering my cookie art for community-based events and larger commissioned media projects. I haven't fully given up on Yummyholic yet, but I also don't have a clear answer on what its future will look like moving forward.
Tell me how you got involved with the census cookies. What drew you to that message?
I started learning more about the census last fall when the City of Pittsburgh's Inclusive Innovation Team reached out about collaborating. They saw the potential in my cookies for educating people about the census. The core of my "cookie activism" has always been rooted in elevating those who I feel are underrepresented and misrepresented. Encouraging participation in the census is essentially the same mission; to make sure that no one is left uncounted. Census data determines federal funding for programs and infrastructure that people and cities heavily rely on and determines how we are represented in government. The message and work aligned, so I was enthusiastic to get involved. Cookies really are an effective tool for making any topic more engaging and palatable!
What is something that you would tell pre-quarantine version of yourself that you think they should know?
Last year, I was really running nonstop, and it got to a point where I was starting to agree to too many things again. I was probably fearful of missing out on certain opportunities, and my ambitions exhausted me. During the quiet of this quarantine, I've deeply realized again how grateful I am to have all I have right now, and that there's no need to run so hard all the time. So, I would tell pre-quarantine Jasmine to breathe, take breaks, and fully cherish all she has — things I’m definitely doing more of now.
What’s an object that you have with you that has particular significance to you these days?
This question made me chuckle, because I recently wrote a paper using Littlefoot and his tree star from "The Land Before Time" to explain Object Relations Theory (I'm currently pursuing my Master's in Art Therapy and Creativity Development in Pratt's low-residency program, where my classes have transitioned online). The gist of the developmental theory is that we seek and use representational objects to grow, connect, and cope, so I appreciate the question, though perhaps through an unnecessarily academic lens lol!
It might sound predictable and cheesy, but the "object" that has carried significance for me during this time are my cookies. All the tools and materials I have access to that allow me to continue making edible art give me a great sense of joy and meaningful work during these otherwise uncertain and difficult times.
What piece of art/book/TV/music is bringing you comfort/inspiration at this time?
A ton. As far as TV, I've mostly been binge-watching shows I've already watched or that were from my youth to provide me a sense of comfort and nostalgia (currently rewatching Xena: Warrior Princess!). I jump from book to book a lot, but the most recent that I actually finished was Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah; it was a slow and lovely story to get lost in as it unfolded.
I mostly listen to Korean music, and recently I've been listening to an indie band called Se So Neon. Their song, "Go Back," has a chorus in English that says, "If I go back, where should I go back?" and it's really spoken to me on multiple levels. It applies to when people tell me (and people who look like me) to go back to my country when this is the only country I know. It makes me question what my sense of home means when I'm separated from my family during a pandemic, and the option to travel to see them is no longer so easy. It also resonates with this sense of, what kind of normal do we want to go back to when this pandemic is over?
Tell me about "therapeutic baking" and what it can offer to people who are stressed but might not be familiar with baking.
Baking provides a sense of method, slowness, and structure, which is why it can feel so comforting for people during a time of a lot of chaos and unknowns. Right now with decreased access to certain foods too, a sense of healing comes through empowerment when you're able to bake bread to sustain you and your loved ones. Baking is a deeply tactile experience that engages all five of your senses, including what I call a sixth or extra sense, which is social connection. There's sometimes a greater sense of labor and love in baking versus in cooking because of how much time, thought, and precision you have to invest, so the product typically encourages you to want to share it with others. All of these aspects can make baking a highly therapeutic activity.
My personal aspiration to create a field of "bake therapy" is so that therapists, social workers, and all helping professionals can use baking as another tool and outlet for guided healing. We all know about multiple intelligences and learning styles; I believe we need to recognize that the paths to healing are just as diverse as we are.
What’s an organization or charity that you’d recommend supporting at this time?
I want to champion my friend, Don Mahaney, who owns Scratch Food & Beverage located in the Troy Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Not only is his restaurant one of my favorite spots that I can't wait to revisit at the end of this pandemic, but Don and his team have been tirelessly offering their restaurant space and services to address food insecurities in the region. They are partnered with multiple folks including Main Street Meals, Gather Pittsburgh, YMCA, Wesley Family Services, and more, to provide hundreds of meals each week to families and older adults across the city. Their restaurant has also been doubling as a marketplace to offer pay-what-you-can meals along with low-priced groceries and sundries for pick-up and delivery.
What I especially love though is cheering on Don and his team who have also started weekly staircase runs to raise funds to help with the costs of providing all that they are for the region. All of it has been incredibly inspiring to see. To sponsor their efforts, the cost is only $4 a meal. You'd be supporting a local restaurant and increasing their direct impact with addressing food insecurity throughout our city. To become a sponsor, just visit their website and click "Donate."