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Credit: Carra Sykes
personal essay

It Wasn’t Enough for Me to Come Out as a Gay Man. I Needed to Come Out as a Baker.

published Jun 16, 2020
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In 2007 I entered my linzer cookie filled with raspberry jam in the local Founder’s Day bakeoff, my first baking competition. I was a teenager living in the Midwest; while other boys played football and attended Boy Scouts meetings, I made crème brûlée and read Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess, a book that inspired me to make homemade puff pastry every weekend for a month.

Inspired by my mother’s natural knack for cakes and caramels, I started baking at a young age — but it was never something I publicly embraced. My fear of being labeled “girly” or “gay” meant that I worked overtime to keep that side of myself a secret. I hid my tracks, bringing leftover baked goods to work claiming that my mother made them. But this competition felt important; it was a way to prove to myself that baking could become more than just my hobby. I submitted the cookies for judging and did, in fact, win.

That week the local newspaper ran an article covering the bakeoff: “Teen boys bake their way to blue ribbons.” I was excited to see my work highlighted for the first time ever. The opening sentence of the article read “Move over Betty Crocker, teenage boys in Algonquin are outbaking their adult, female competition.” There was only one quote from the judge, and she didn’t mention my cookie recipe (there was homemade nut flour!) or why I was crowned the winner. She instead pointed out that “It’s almost always women who win” — a statement that fueled my insecurities. The article focused almost entirely on the fact that I was a boy. From that day on, I refused to call myself a baker.

After the competition, I tried to suppress any cravings I had to work in pastry professionally. After high school, I went to culinary school and focused strictly on cooking. While the pastry students made perfectly laminated doughs, I cut yet another potato into a tournée shape. Instead of making ornate sugar sculptures, I broke down what felt like my hundredth chicken carcass.

It was around this time that I slowly came to terms with my own sexuality. I started dating my first boyfriend and came out to my friends and family. Even though I was comfortable with being queer, I was still uncomfortable with the idea of wanting to be a baker. I continued to bake at home in private; making lavender-scented shortbread cookies and flourless chocolate cakes for no one but myself. I had no problem kissing another man but didn’t want to admit to being a baker for fear that it would make me seem “gay.” It was a perplexing and deeply rooted form of irony and self-hatred that I couldn’t see at the time.

I jumped from kitchen to kitchen, spending some time working in research and development (finding the work very boring; there are only so many ways to innovate a fast food burger), and I eventually took a job at one of the most hyped bakeries in Chicago. It was a James Beard-nominated bakery that was known for making pies and breads from house-milled flour. I managed the kitchen and was responsible for the savory side of the menu. It was the closest I had ever gotten to professional baking, yet I wasn’t actually baking. In fact, I never once baked anything at that job. Making grits, toasts, braises, sauces, and other savory items were daily rituals, but never once did I learn how to make the items they received acclaim for, like their rustic loaves of sourdough and toothsome baguettes. My interest quickly faded.

I had no problem kissing another man but didn’t want to admit to being a baker for fear that it would make me seem “gay.” It was a perplexing and deeply rooted form of irony and self-hatred that I couldn’t see at the time.

After four years of living in Chicago and never finding the right job, I moved to New York and took a food writing internship, thinking that writing could make me happy. I left my apartment and then-boyfriend, and camped out on a friend’s couch in Brooklyn. The first friend I made in the city was named Eric. He was a successful food writer, a talented home baker, and also gay. We had been following each other on Instagram for several years and finally met in person. Eric’s friendship led to meeting many more gay men, many of which were also bakers. One was celebrated for his chocolate chip cookies, another made delicious (albeit ugly) sweet potato pies, and one wrote a cookbook dedicated to Southern desserts. These friends became my New York family. The day I broke up with my boyfriend, they took me out for hot cocoa and tacos. They provided endless guidance as I navigated my way through a new city and my first bad breakup.

Their outward expression of pride in what they did made me realize there was no need for me to feel ashamed. They were proud — and wildly successful — bakers who had no hesitation calling themselves just that. So I started to make some changes. I started to flood my Instagram feed with photos of my baked goods: chocolate and caramel tarts showered in flaky sea salt, cookies in an array of shapes and sizes, sheet cakes topped with dramatic swooshes of frosting and twee sprinkles. I had been baking for fun multiple times a week, but rarely shared my creations. It was a tiny gesture that felt like a personal victory towards finding my place in the food world. When people would call me a baker I would no longer correct them.

When people would call me a baker I would no longer correct them.

An editor for a baking magazine (who is also a gay man), began following me on Instagram, and we quickly became internet friends. When he visited New York, we met up for drinks and he asked me to write my first big print story: a 10-page spread dedicated to caramelized white chocolate and all the ways you can use it. When I spotted the issue in the grocery store months later, I opened the pages and saw my desserts with the byline: Recipe development and food styling by Jesse Szewczyk. A caramelized white chocolate chess pie, a black cocoa cake with ganache dripping down the sides like lava showered in flaky sea salt — it was the showcasing of my work I longed to see as a kid, only this time presented without a single mention of my gender. Any embarrassment I felt as a child was gone; it was replaced with pure joy.

I am not a pastry chef, and I would never claim to be, but I am a home baker — and have always been a home baker. It wasn’t until I saw a group of talented queer bakers doing exactly what I wanted to be doing that I felt comfortable enough to do it myself. My coming-out process was twofold: It wasn’t enough for me to come out as a gay man. I needed to come out as a baker.