First published in The Record, April 2, 2017
Mixing sugar with kindness to fight Islamophobia
Farzana Rahman tried very hard to lose this year’s bake-off for inter-religious harmony.
She won last year, after all, with a splashy two-tiered carrot pineapple cake topped with edible sculptures of a globe, flags from dozens of nations, and people from around the world.
“I was a little embarrassed I won,” said Rahman of Franklin Township, a Muslim from India who dreams of opening her own restaurant. “I did too much work. This time I’m trying to keep it simple.”
For most people, a simple cake comes from a box. Rahman is not one of those people. When she arrived Saturday at American Legion Post 344 in Rockaway, she unveiled an orange chocolate cake topped with a bouquet of sugar cherry blossoms, tiger lilies and a pink peony bigger than her fist.
“Oh wow!” Rabia Mahwood, Rahman’s bake-off neighbor and competitor, said when Rahman removed the cake from its box. “Is that real?”
The bake-off is one of the quintessential events of American suburbia. As a competition, it evokes a culture we no longer know ― one that always existed more as a collective illusion than reality ― in which the women of the North Jersey suburbs were mostly white, mostly Christian, and spent most of their time at home, much of it cooking.
How perfect, then, to create a bake-off for the suburbs as they exist today, filled not with Muslims and Christians and Jews and agnostics but rather with precisely two kinds of people: those who bake cakes, and those who eat cakes.
The event was called the Sweet Peace bake-off, and it was organized by Women in Unity, a group that started in 2011 when Jill Cadman, who is Jewish, walked into the Islamic Center of Morris County mosque in Rockaway and said she wanted to make some friends.
“Even then there was a lot of discrimination and misinformation, and Muslims were viewed as terrorists, and I thought it wasn’t fair,” said Cadman, 53, of Rockaway. “So I walked into the mosque and said I really wanted to hook up with women for a monthly discussion group.”
The first meeting happened, appropriately, at a Friendly’s restaurant. The group grew steadily, and in 2015 the members decided to try their first bake-off. For two years it was held in the Rockaway mosque, but the crowd grew so big the organizers moved it this year to the American Legion hall.
Inquiries grew during the 2016 Presidential election, when Donald Trump pledged to ban immigrants from majority-Muslim countries and equated many Muslims with terrorists.
“We’ve seen a real increase in interest since before Trump was elected,” Cadman said. “We try to let people know that there are lots of Muslims in our area, and there’s nothing to be frightened about. And you know, everybody loves dessert.”
About 300 people attended this year’s event, and together they packed the legion’s main hall to capacity. Some came to bake, but most came to eat.
In the latter category was Curt Michael of Rockaway, whose wife, Cathy, brought dozens of tiny tarts filled with dark Mexican chocolate, vanilla mousse and fresh dragon fruit. “I’m here to support my wife,” he said. “But I have my eyes on some cream puffs over there in the corner.”
Wedged in against one, beside a large American flag, stood Ann Filidoro of Denville, who spent nine and a half hours baking a chocolate cake topped with a painting of a red-headed boy carrying a bag of groceries for his grandmother.
“I feel like the media is exaggerating all this hatred and Islamophobia,” said Filidoro, 50. “Look at this. Are we fighting here? No. It’s packed, and everyone’s getting along.”
In a corner, A.J. Kelem, 13, sat behind his chocolate log cake and fluttered his hands.
“I’m nervous,” said Kelem, an aspiring pastry chef who wore a white chef’s coat. “I think it’s great because everybody should be friends.”
The winners were announced, and Farzana Rahman had failed twice in her bid to cede the spotlight. Her daughter Farisha, 7, took first place in the kids’ competition with a carrot-pineapple cake. And then, despite her best efforts to lose, Farzana’s flowered cake was named the best, tastiest, most beautiful thing at the bake-off.
“I can’t believe I won with so many contestants here,” she said, smiling and shaking her head. “Maybe I’ll stick more to cakes.”