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Pittsburgh baker honors Asian American activists with cookie portraits

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We want to introduce you now to a baker in Pittsburgh who uses cookies to honor the stories of unsung Asian American heroes. Here's NPR's Lakshmi Singh.

LAKSHMI SINGH, BYLINE: Jasmine Cho is about to try something she has never dared try before. She's going to take a bite of her own cookie.

JASMINE CHO: (Laughter).

SINGH: Wait - no pressure.

CHO: This is pressure. You're right. I've never bitten into a face cookie before.

SINGH: Cho's reservations are understandable, given the hours, sometimes days she spends on her custom-made creations. Underneath every layer of icing is a remarkable story of a warrior who's confronted discrimination and injustice at great personal cost. Each inspiration is plucked from the pages of history books or present-day postings on social media.

CHO: I don't want to bite any further (laughter).

SINGH: On this day, the founder of the online bakery Yummyholic is struggling to show me the ropes around this commercial kitchen in Pittsburgh. This place is filled with the intoxicating aroma of vanilla, sugar and butter, lots and lots of butter. Cho remains fixed, though, on a photo of a young woman with a bashful smile and gets to work.

CHO: So I'm mixing a little bit of color right now, a little bit of green.

SINGH: She presses the tip of a slender brush into a palette of food coloring and icing, then applies the sweet ingredients in gentle strokes across a four-inch canvas of baked dough.

CHO: All right. I'm just going to go for it and just start maybe with her eyebrows here.

SINGH: Within minutes, the familiar contours of eyes, a dimple and a smile emerge and bear an uncanny resemblance to her subject's photo. She's taken a cookie and finally turned it into a work of art. And then she starts the process all over again, dozens of times over - to think these delectable delights started out as birthday party favors but became an online sensation.

CHO: It just went completely viral. There was so much attention being funneled toward it. And so that was really my aha moment of, wow, everyone's paying attention to something I've created. What do I want them to pay attention to?

(APPLAUSE)

SINGH: In 2019, Cho made it to the stage of a TEDx Talk in Pittsburgh, where she shared her idea. She wanted to shine a light on Asians and Asian Americans, who she says have been left out of school curriculums.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHO: Privilege is when your history is taught as core curriculum while mine is taught as an elective.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.

CHO: Growing up as an Asian American, I felt like I had to accept being invisible in the only country I knew to call home.

SINGH: The joyful baker says she leaned into her mission for social justice. She baked batches of tributes to figures who embody resilience and are widely celebrated as protectors of revered traditions, each cookie portrait capturing every minute detail, like her striking portrayal of the iconic Filipina Indigenous tattoo artist Apo Whang-Od.

CHO: She's 106 years old, and I am piping on every single, you know, fold in her skin, every wrinkle. And I think those are physical traits that - each tell a story.

SINGH: In 2020, Jasmine Cho scored major commissions to showcase cookie portraits of unsung Asian American heroes, including work for the Comedy Central sitcom "Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens." There were workshops, a docuseries, a census project for Pittsburgh and, of course, a lot more orders. Then 2021 arrived.

CHO: That was actually a far more difficult year for me. That, to me, was the height of anti-Asian violence.

SINGH: Reported crimes targeting Asian American communities soared in the United States since the coronavirus was first reported in China more than a year earlier. Headlines of horrific attacks kept coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ROBIN ROBERTS: Police arresting this man after surveillance video caught him repeatedly kicking a 65-year-old woman who was on her way to church.

JOANNA LIN: She ran over, grabbed me by the hair, threw me on the ground and, like, started punching me several times.

NANCY CHEN: This surveillance footage shows a 71-year-old Asian grandmother violently shoved to the ground, her purse stolen.

SINGH: Cho says she remembers feeling rage, fear for her own family and painfully disconnected during the pandemic, especially when a beloved aunt suddenly passed away after surgery. The only way Cho could grieve at her aunt's funeral was from the other side of a Zoom camera. Depression took hold, and Cho pulled back from virtually everything she held dear, including baking. The social justice activist who'd made it her life's mission to bring joy and understanding to the world was now struggling to understand the world she lived in. But over time, Cho seemed to discover something profound about herself. She realized that the vulnerability she had been feeling had actually been her strength all along.

CHO: I really do hold to the importance of remaining tender. You know, you talk about how a good baked good has a tender crumb. You know, to me, tenderness, that softness is about making sure that you don't numb yourselves to the experience of life. And life includes pain but also joy.

SINGH: Yeah.

CHO: (Laughter).

SINGH: Jasmine Cho says she found her joy again - for personal connection, for baking and for indulging a rookie who thinks her misshapen cookie's ready for prime time.

I nailed it.

CHO: (Laughter). No. Yeah. You did. I was looking at mine...

SINGH: Like that show - nailed it.

CHO: (Laughter).

SINGH: I'm Lakshmi Singh, NPR News in Washington.

CHO: How fun. This was fun for me.

SHAPIRO: And that story is part of Lakshmi's new series called The Sunshine Project, available now on the new NPR app. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lakshmi Singh is a midday newscaster and a guest host for NPR, which she joined in 2000.