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Author Interview: Coltan Schoenike

We’re very excited to have local author and chef Coltan Schoenike here today for the third installment of our interview series. The lending library has recently acquired their book, Spread Love (and Buttercream!): Recipes and Reflections Where Love is the First Ingredient and a Sweeter World is Ours for the Baking and they’ve graciously agreed to answer some questions about baking, writing, and all the life in between.

The author themself, applying frosting to a culinary delight
Photo credit: UW-Stout

Coltan is a nonbinary trans person living in the Menomonie (Wisconsin) area, where they launched Thèm de la Crème to express a love of baking (and good puns). Though they’ve stopped taking cupcake orders, their work lives on in their book, and now they’re a marriage and family therapist by trade, having recently completed their Master’s Degree and certificate in Sex Therapy. Find out more about them in the interview below!

Spread Love (and Buttercream!) is a delightful book, combining some delicious recipes with thoughts and advice on life and health. When did you first have the idea to write a book like this?

Thank you! I’m so tickled by the love and joy people have expressed in regard to the book. It’s a really funny spur-of-the-moment story that led to the book. I started Thèm de la Crème months earlier with this vision of love and kindness and positivity embedded into this idea of sharing community and togetherness through food (in this specific case,cupcakes). I was underemployed at the time waiting for my state license to process and be able to practice therapy and looking for things to do. I was perusing through a cookbook my fiance had gotten as a gift, specifically Antoni Porowski’s Antoni in the Kitchen, and was just enamored with how beautiful the book was aesthetically.

From there, I was just laughing at pie-in-the-sky ideas with one of my best friends, Zen, and thought, “what if I did a TDLC cookbook?” which then evolved into “what if each recipe had a cute little popup affirmation because that’s very much ‘the vibe’ of what I do” and then “what if it also had chapters about various topics for improving our self-love and relationships and used baking metaphors to explain the topics?” At that point, Zen and I were just like “okay, this is happening,” and the rest is history. This was around last September when we came up with the idea and I posted some stuff on social media to get an idea of whether this would be something people would be interested in, and everyone was really hyped for it. People kept asking if it would be out in time for the holidays because they thought it’d make a great gift and I looked at myself and said, “Okay, Coltan. I guess we’re gonna speed write a cookbook in a few weeks so we can get this baby out by the holidays.”

The book seems so timely, as well, coming during a time when a lot of people were turning to baking as a kind of coping mechanism and hobby, and when the pandemic made self-care and health even more complicated and important. Was the pandemic on your mind at all as you got the book together, or was it more of a coincidence?

Oh absolutely! I have what people would describe as “zero chill,” and I was already baking before the pandemic and a side hustle business felt like the next natural step, so Thèm de la Crème itself was my own pandemic coping mechanism. Even though I hadn’t realized it at the time, the pandemic had its hand in it that way. Throughout the pandemic and adding this eight-ish months between graduating and actually getting to start working to the mix, I had my own stuff going on mentally and was seeing the way it was impacting me and the people I care about, even if I never specifically put the word “pandemic” into my thoughts and internal narratives about the book’s process.

We’re all being stuck alone with our thoughts, which is not something we tend to actively prefer in a fast-paced capitalist hellscape like the one we live in. In addition, those of us who are partnered are dealing with either vastly intensified separation if we’re in a long-distance relationship and can’t visit now, or we are finding ourselves on top of each other more intimately than ever before when we are cohabitating and stuck at home with zero break from each other. On top of all of that, we were dealing with continued violence toward our loved ones who are black, indigenous, and people of color with the murder of George Floyd and brutality against Jacob Blake and ever-intensifying division and polarization with an impending election with more at stake than we can comprehend. We were not okay, and I don’t think we have even yet fully recovered. Seeing all of this around us, I knew this book needed to talk about our relationships with ourselves, how we show up with each other, and how we can continue to work toward social justice in our communities.

Outside of Spread Love (and Buttercream!), do you do much writing? Poetry, short stories, journaling? Or are there other arts that you’re more interested in (besides baking)?

It’s very interesting when it comes to my hobbies and creative endeavors. Some may consider me inconsistent or sporadic with my interests, but I like to think of it as intuitive. As a kid with ADHD that was undiagnosed, I definitely was that child who was picking up a new hobby or interest and probably dropping it a few weeks later. I think there’s a lot of judgement and shame put on that pattern and I’ve tried to combat that and unlearn that narrative. We feel that if someone drops a hobby soon after, were they really interested in it or did they just think they were? Of course they were interested! All of this to say, I’ve thought of it more as following my interests intuitively.

If I am not interested in something at the moment and it doesn’t bring me joy, why do it? Depending on where my heart and mind are at in the moment, you might find me doing various different creative expressions. Sometimes it’s art, sometimes it’s sewing, sometimes it’s writing. However, writing is usually one of my less frequent forms of expression and so if you had told me even months before I started Spread Love (and Buttercream!) that I’d have a book out by the end of the year, I’d say you were mistaking me for someone else. I do have other writing projects in progress and after the experience of this book, I am trying to follow that intuitive side and work on it as it makes me feel happy and not push myself to a deadline. If that means it never comes out, it wasn’t meant to be. But I’m okay with that.

Did you have a writing routine as you were working on Spread Love (and Buttercream!)? Or a special place where you would work on it? A soundtrack you’d listen to?

As I had mentioned, I set a pretty tight deadline to get this book done and so there was less of a routine or schedule and more like I was just writing constantly from sun up to sun down. The one benefit of not being able to work yet was that I did have all that time to dedicate to it. When I got started with the book, my nesting instincts kicked in and I got this little area set up on our dining room table. I dusted off this old little flat screen from my first dorm to set up a second monitor, and got real acquainted with this bright pink task chair I’d be getting VERY familiar with over the next few weeks. Over the first week or so of writing, I was playing around with various layouts and also starting to put in a few of my recipes that I could rearrange later while Zen and I would also be constantly tweaking and fidgeting with is shared document we had that was outlining the order and structure of the book in regard to what recipes would go where, how the book would be organized, what topics the book would talk about and when, etc.

Late one night around 3am I finally got the epiphany I needed and had the structure that we ended with for the final version of the book. From there the next few weeks I would be writing all day and I’d usually alternate and do a recipe page then write a chapter. For the most part, I would jump around as I was feeling inspired with various topics and felt that I could write about it effectively and efficiently without staring at the computer screen until my eyes glazed over. Once I got close to my initial deadline to give people editing enough time to read through the whole book, I started to write the rest and fill in the gaps in order. I appreciated that system as well because I feel like it gave me more control and space to be intentional about the book as an overall experience too because I could see the book as someone would theoretically be reading it if they went in order.

Getting through those couple of weeks and speed writing this book, I’m very grateful for the constant moral support from Zen and others along with YouTube study music and obscene amounts of pizza rolls.

In your book, you describe the importance of being able to veer from a recipe, to make replacements or swaps as necessary or desired. When you’re making a new dish from a recipe, do you find that you start making changes right away, or are you more likely to refine only after you follow the recipe closely and see what it tastes like?

I one hundred percent usually start tweaking things or altering right away. My fiance and I both have our various likes and dislikes to certain foods and flavors and have a lot of people in our lives with various food needs like vegan or vegetarian diets or sticking to gluten-free options, which is why I felt it was so important to include a comprehensive section of ways to alter recipes for your needs. It’s not impossible because we do have the wonders of the internet, but it’s still not guaranteed that you can find a recipe that will always meet all of your needs or preferences. With that said, I’m usually shooting for the “close enough” recipe and then adapting right from the get-go.

Along those lines, do you use cookbooks regularly? Do you have a favorite cookbook? Or a favorite chef?

Once again, with the wonders of the internet, I’m usually more of a printout recipe than a full cookbook kind of gal. However, there are a few cookbooks that do have a place in my heart including Antoni in the Kitchen for the sentimental reason of starting this journey. I’m also a very big Claire Saffitz fan and have yet to get Dessert Person, but I’m working on it, I promise! As mentioned, the internet recipes are great too and don’t be too skeptical of them. Sally’s Baking Addiction has yet to do me wrong and Sally is my homegirl. There are so many creative and talented people from famous TV and internet chefs to recipe bloggers to your local chefs in your community. For our local area, you’re missing out if you haven’t experienced the magic that is Chef Stacy Gregerson from Stacked Eatery. That woman is a damn genius.

You write in the book about getting a lot of inspiration from the people around you and the importance of that, but I’m curious if you’ve ever gotten inspiration for a recipe from a strange or unexpected place?

Those are the best places to get inspiration! I think it’s always so fun when there’s a sense of fun or whimsy or surprise that leads to a new recipe or other idea. One recipe that didn’t make it to the final cut of the book but I did release as bonus content for certain purchases was a “Cherry Blossom” cupcake. I thought to myself, “cherry blossoms are so gorgeous and what cupcake can I make to have an excuse for putting a pretty cherry blossom branch made of buttercream and chocolate on top?” To my excitement, I brainstormed and landed on a white cupcake, cherry filling, and rose-flavored buttercream. It was SO GOOD. In general, I just love the idea of “cupcake-ifying” things and asking myself, “how can I make this into a cupcake?”

Have you ever had a flavor you wanted to make into a cupcake or other kind of dish and it just...did not work?

This was a regular cake instead of a cupcake but it still haunts me to this day and I’m so mad about it. As I mention in my book my mom was a big source of the foundation for my love of baking and how I go about it today. When I was a teenager, my mom made margarita cupcakes for a family get-together and they were a hit. A couple of years ago, I tried to follow in her footsteps and tried to make a margarita cake for myself and some friends and it was absolutely terrible. One hundred percent one of my worst baking fails ever. It was way too salty and I don’t know what sorcery my mother conjured to balance the sour and salty for her margarita cupcakes, but it is a magic I have yet to achieve.

Beautiful Cupcakes
Photo Credit: UW-Stout

If you were a cupcake, what flavor would you like to be?

That’s a good question. The first cupcake I made when I was starting out trying fun flavors was a pink champagne cupcake so maybe that one? It’s pink, fun, but also light and (hopefully) bringing about feelings of joy. I’m also incredibly extra, so there’s that too.

You offer a lot of advice and reflections in the book on a variety of health and wellness topics. Is there something you hope people come away from the book feeling or thinking?

The best word I would describe how I want people to feel coming out of the book would just be “okay.” The book can bring about a lot of great and powerful things for some people depending on how you engage with it, but just the same it may bring about some really challenging and difficult reflection at the same time. You may come out feeling great, or you may feel like you’ve uncovered some difficult stuff to work through, and either way, I want you to feel like this is a part of the process and be okay with wherever you are at in it.

Where can people go to keep up with your current projects?

While I’ve stopped orders and things for Thèm de la Crème to focus on other things and not burn myself out, I’ve kept the social media open for people who may have questions about the book and if I have other updates in the future, so people can follow me on those accounts. In addition, people interested in my therapist and educator journey can follow me on twitter at @ColtanSchoenike for those updates.

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