“Last year was nuts.”
Jasmine Cho laughs as she says this, but it's no joke. In the past year, the artist, cookie activist, and founder of Yummyholic has published a book, given a TEDx talk, been featured in national media like NPR and the Huffington Post, placed first in a Food Network competition, and had Mayor Bill Peduto officially proclaim Jan. 28 Jasmine Cho day; all of this achieved while Cho pursued an art therapy degree from Carlow University.
But merging activism with sweet treats wasn’t always her intent. In fact, baking wasn’t even something Cho did much growing up. Her first experience with the science — or “magic” as she calls it — didn't happen until her sophomore year of high school.
“I was suddenly able to create the delicious and beautiful treats I liked to eat so much,” Cho says. “But the best part was being able to then create something that I was able to gift and share with everyone that I love.”
Soon, Cho found herself with a new dream: to open a bakery and cafe of her own.
It would be 2010 before she took any “actionable” steps towards this goal, finally founding Yummyholic, not as a bakery, but as a foodie apparel company. Slowly, she shifted the brand towards baking and by 2015 — the year Cho identifies as Yummyholic’s turning point from clothing to cookies — she was looking for real baking experience. Using YouTube videos of her baking, Cho landed a job at Bella Christie and Lil Z's Sweet Boutique in Aspinwall, a position that affirmed “this passion of [hers] wasn’t just a hobby; it’s something [she] would love to suffer for.”
Cho designed Yummyholic to be a brand — the “Hello Kitty of food,” she says — a place for people who, like her, were addicted to the pursuit of all things yummy.
“But my passions for social justice just kind of took over,” she says.
Cho can’t pinpoint a definitive moment when Yummyholic turned into a platform for education, but remembers a Squirrel Hill Night Market as one of the first times she iced with intention. For this market, she created a giant landscape of portrait cookies that featured locally influential Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders like Leah Lizarondo of 412 Food Rescue and former Steeler Hines Ward.
It was a class at Chatham University that solidified her movement towards cookie activism; Cho found herself learning important pieces of Asian-American history that otherwise would have been left out of her education.
“Privilege is when your history is taught as core curriculum while mine is taught as an elective,” she said to applause in her TEDx talk in Pittsburgh.
Since then, Cho has put her platform to work, telling the untold story of Afong Moy, the first known immigrant woman from China who was put on a 17th-century display of “Chinese curiosities.” Cho has brought Sammy Lee — the first Asian-American diver to win an Olympic gold medal for the U.S. — to life on a cookie. She’s iced portraits of modern celebrities and her own role models like Ali Wong and Awkwafina.
“These are all remarkable stories of American history, but I can guarantee that some of you, possibly many of you, have never heard of these names or stories until just now,” she noted on stage at TEDx.
The response to her work — not only from Asian Americans across the nation but adoptive parents as well — has simply re-affirmed once again “how much representation matters.”
“Ten-year-old Jasmine was hungry for that kind of representation,” she reflects. “I always assumed and expected there were other 10-year-old girls out there like me.”
In her TED talk, Cho brings up the response of a friend's teenage daughter who toured Cho’s cookie exhibit in the City-County Building. Cho’s art inspired an enthusiastic response from the young woman, who was soon googling the stories behind each portrait.
Another affirming moment for Cho was in 2018, when she visited a Shadyside Academy kindergarten class with a number of Asian-American students.
“Once [the students] saw me, they were like, ‘She has hair like me, she looks like me, is she Chinese like me?’ It starts so early, that sense of identification and belonging,” Cho says. And cookies “make everything more palatable.”
From her first step toward cookie activism, Cho has been continually surprised by the reach of her work. But this doesn’t come without caution.
“It’s startling, your face in illustration,” she says, referring to her first big media break in Pittsburgh. “I remember feeling, 'This is important, but I don't want to be tokenized.’ I am just one voice in this huge umbrella identity. It’s impossible for me to be totally representative.”
For Cho, it was meaningful to gain national attention “to have it confirmed that there’s a larger context outside of Pittsburgh."
Now, as she looks toward a graduate program in Brooklyn, Cho is trying to figure out her next steps. She’s separating activism from the name Yummyholic, instead putting the social justice work under her own name. Baking as therapy has taken a huge role in the future of her career, and as part of this, Cho has sidelined any advancement of Yummyholic to focus on her therapeutic work with the Children’s Hospital and Center for Victims.
A big bakery, community cafe, and personal kitchen are still in her vision for the future, but as of right now, Cho is concentrating on simply staying open to possibilities that may come.
"Imagination is so limited to what I only know, ” she says.