The Better-Bake-Sale Battle

Do you go store-bought or homemade? And other questions of deep import

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There’s been a delicious dust-up online this week, in the wake of Jennifer Steinhauer’s New York Times story bemoaning the presence of store-bought goods on bake sale tables and castigating their donation as “weirdly like cheating and more than a little tacky: a re-gifting that does not even try to hide the price tag.” The Times, undoubtedly smelling most-emailed potential, gave the piece a lavish spread with a black and white photo of a potluck dinner of yore clearly meant to evoke good-old-days nostalgia. All of which was too much for Bad Mother author Ayelet Waldman, who quickly fired off one of her signature tweets in protest.

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Her precise language is not reproducible here, but, cleaned up a bit for a family audience and with the dialect tweaked slightly to recapture the tone, it read something like this: “Yo, sanctimonious not-very-nice lady. I have 4 kids, a fulltime job. I don’t have time to bake cookies. Lucky you that you do.”

Being, like Waldman, a person given to certain… excesses of emotion, and with an opinion at the ready on just about any topic that comes my way, it always amazes me when I happen upon something — anything — about which I’ve never been able to muster an even half-hearted rant. Bake sales, I’ll admit, have (until now) fallen into that neglected category.  I’ve always liked them, have — until a month ago, when I began, tragically, to experiment with a gluten-free diet to alleviate my migraines — always plied my kids with extra money, so they could score me the best cookies.

Like Steinhauer, I do (or did) always prefer home-baked goods to store-bought. And I’ve always tried to do my fair share of baking, even though, as Waldman perceptively notes, the effort has been very costly in terms of time and energy.

I’m not talking about the effort of the actual baking — for the safety and health of everyone involved, I always stick to the slice-and-bake (or, better yet: break-apart-and-bake) model of cookie-making — but rather to the cost to me in terms of mental space and focus.

You see, there are so many steps involved in bringing a batch of break-and-bake cookies to school:

You have to remember to buy the dough.

You have to remember to turn on the oven.

You have to remember to take the cookies out of the oven.

You have to let them cool without spattering dishwashing liquid all over them.

You have to keep them away from the dog and from your husband.

You have to find a receptacle for transporting them.

You have to keep from dropping them on the sidewalk.

You have to make sure they end up in whatever mysterious place they’re supposed to end up and are not left sitting around so that, weeks later, they’re found fossilized, in some back office and shoved into the garbage. (Though slice-and-bake cookies can last a surprisingly long time.)

Every single one of those steps is fraught with the potential for failure. I cannot tell you the number of work hours I’ve lost, the precious moments of life wasted on mental un-presence, as I’ve striven to meet these challenges. The emails unanswered! The books unwritten! I can’t even think of it. But I’ve digressed.

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The problem with Steinhauer’s story is that it ignores one basic and somewhat disturbing truth: kids like the store-bought stuff. It’s familiar to them; they know they’re not going to get any nasty surprises, like raisins or shredded carrot or burned edges hiding in a falsely festive paper liners. Time and again, I’ve seen them turn up their noses at home-baked treats in favor of minipacks of Oreos, sticks of Starbursts, potato chips and — horror of horrors — cans of Coke. This bizarre behavior points, I think, to an even more basic truth: in this age of school bans on birthday cupcakes and auto-da-fés against the Good Humor man, bake sales are transgressive. And for kids in particular who come from homes free of transfats and high-fructose corn syrup (as, I suspect, those in Steinhauer’s orbit do), there’s no greater thrill than ripping open one of those little Nabisco packages, feeling the rush of refined sugar, fake cookie cream and the cheapest, unfairest trade chocolate.

Given that our kids today have neither the time nor the space, nor — to a surprising degree — much inclination to transgress, I think that those who bring store-bought goods to bake sales should let themselves off the hook for whatever guilt Steinhauer’s story may have inspired. Think of your offerings as providing a safe — developmentally appropriate! — place in which children can rebel.