Valerie Van Galder is the creator of the Depressed Cake Shop. Cake may not be pie, but I’m a fan of anything that’s baked for a greater good. The DCS website, which is beautifully designed, reads, “Research has shown that baking is a pursuit that fits a type of therapy known as behavioral activation. Psychologists have discovered that the simple act of baking and sharing your bakes improves one’s sense of well-being.” AMEN TO THAT!
Valerie and I first connected a few years ago through our mutual goals in baking to heal the world. An award-winning marketing genius for film studios, Val had lost her dad to mental illness when she found out about a pop-up bake sale in London called the Depressed Cake Shop, created by Emma Thomas. Val took what had been a one-time event and built it into an international platform to bring bakers and mental health activists together. The pop-ups have proliferated, with the bake sales selling out of their conversation-starting cookies and cupcakes—when you see desserts frosted with gray icing and decorated with sad faces, it prompts questions.
Because one in four people will suffer from, or be touched by, a mental health issue at some point in their lives, we definitely need more bake sales—and to be baking more! Which is what we did at Val’s house during my recent stay in LA. Her new assistant, Devi, was there too—along with Val’s sidekick, Hazel, the quietest, most affectionate beagle I’ve ever met.
Devi, a young and bright beauty with Indian roots and an interest in a career in entertainment, was hired to help with DCS’s social media and create videos. So she set up her camera to tape the pie-making process, not realizing that she was going to be the one making the pie. Val kept an eye on the camera and lobbed questions at me while I instructed Devi in making and rolling the dough, loading the pie shell with apples, crimping the crust, all the way through to putting the pie in the oven.
Val saw our leftover dough and said, “We can make Depressed Cake Shop crust cookies!” She jumped into action, pulling out her cloud-shaped cookie cutters, gray-colored sugar and candy eyeballs. The symbolism of the clouds was obvious. But the eyeballs? Huh?
Val explained, “Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons once told me that the characters’ eyes looked the way they did so that they would always look slightly anxious. When I put [the eyes] on Oreos, ‘Anxious Oreos’ were born and the rest is history. Now we put googly eyes on everything!” Her Anxious Oreos, the chocolate sandwich cookies dipped in gray-colored chocolate, are a pop-up staple.
In between checking on the pie in the oven, I looked around Val’s kitchen. On the wall was a framed watercolor with a handwritten phrase that read:
“There are things you do because they feel right and they may make no sense and they make no money and it may be the real reason we are here: to love each other and to eat each other’s cooking and say it was good.”
“This is exactly what I believe,” I told Val. Just seeing this hanging prominently in her house underscored why we had become friends.
“Yes, it’s so true, isn’t it?” she replied.
Then I remembered. “Val, this artist is from Decorah, Iowa!”
I shouldn’t have been surprised by finding a morsel of Iowa in Val’s Santa Monica, California kitchen. These kinds of coincidences and connections happened throughout my World Piece trip around the world. We are all connected by invisible threads that too often we don’t realize are holding us together. It’s when those filaments come into view that barriers are broken down, replaced by a sense of belonging. Whether it’s discovering you have mutual friends when you’re halfway around the world or just spotting the work of an artist from your home state when you’re halfway across the country.
I confess I was a little down when I showed up at Val’s doorstep that afternoon. Maybe I was overtired from all the driving I’d been doing in LA’s white-knuckle traffic or from trying to cram in as many meetings and events (not just book promo) as I could—but after making that pie, I was in such a good mood! Val, who hadn’t been feeling well after getting both a flu shot and Covid booster that morning, said the same thing.
“Pie is comfort. Pie heals,” I always preach. And as Val states on her website, “The simple act of baking and sharing your bakes improves one’s sense of well-being.” Here we were, administering our own medicine on ourselves.
As for Devi, based on her high-beam smile radiating in the photos as she held up her first homemade pie, she was probably the happiest of the bunch. “I can’t wait to send these pictures to my dad,” she said.
We cut into the pie when it was still piping hot, not caring if we scorched our tongues. We savored each bite in a celebration of our joint effort. “The real reason we are here: to love each other and to eat each other’s cooking and say it was good.”
“This is so good,” we all kept saying. So very, very good.
To learn more about the work of Depressed Cake Shop and organize your own pop-up to support mental health, go to the DCS website.
To get a “Real Reason” print and see more from this Iowa artist, check out the StoryPeople website.
This is the second post from my October/November 2022 California WORLD PIECE book tour, with more to come. Read the first one: The Power of One Pie