UPDATED: March 11, 2023 at 5:02 p.m.
Dayna P. Altman glazes on positivity with a heavy hand. With distinctively large black glasses and a smile just as big, she floats around the room. To each table of competitors, she doles out cans of frosting and Ziploc bags of food coloring, fondant, marshmallows, and candy. It’s the Sunday afternoon of Feb. 26 in the Green Room, an intimate event space in Somerville, and the air is thick with anticipation for the culinary catastrophes to come.
Altman is the founder of Bake it Till You Make it LLC, a “community based organization dedicated to destigmatizing mental illness, normalizing mental health conversation and promoting authentic healing and recovery” that seeks to connect people through food, according to its website.
“So much of this organization was built because I felt so lonely,” Altman says. “I wanted to create a community where you could be open.”
This desire spurred her to begin hosting events like this one, called “Nailed It!” — now in its third year. It’s a cupcake-decorating competition based on the Netflix show of the same name where amateur bakers are tasked with recreating complex culinary creations (mishaps abound).
Unlike competitors on the show, the 13 attendees, who are divided into seven teams, are never charged with touching a hand mixer, much less an oven; they instead receive pre-made cupcakes to decorate. And rather than vying for new kitchen appliances or cash prizes, this assortment of people from all different avenues of Altman’s life — friends, family, followers, and a documentary film crew — are united by her mission of starting conversations about mental health through baking.
The Bake it Till You Make it project, which takes its name from a different amateur baking show on Food Network, grew out of a cookbook of the same title which Altman released in 2019. The book contains a mixture of stories and recipes contributed by 43 people who have struggled with mental illness.
Following the publication of this cookbook, “I started doing these events where I would tell my own mental health story using the ingredients as metaphors,” Altman says. “So for example, if I’m cracking an egg, I’m talking about a time that was really difficult for me.” In her advocacy, Altman aims to be open about her obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and recovery from an eating disorder and sexual assault. Since publishing Bake it Till You Make it, she has released three more books — an additional collaborative storytelling cookbook, a collection of bread recipes and poems, and an account of her own story told as a cake pop recipe.
Back in the Green Room, the competitors of BITYMI move through three progressively difficult rounds. Armed only with the ingredients at their tables, creativity, and perseverance, they attempt to fashion snowmen, cacti, and unicorns out of the blank canvases of Funfetti cupcakes. They strategize how best to transform a marshmallow into modeling clay and prevent their saccharine structures from collapsing onto the paper plates beneath them.
“I’m operating on a vibe economy right now,” says Julia Guilardi, a long-time friend of Altman, when asked how she and her team partner, Nicole Yang, are going to win.
Part of the inspiration behind BITYMI comes from a difficult summer for Altman in 2017. “I was in grad school, I was living with my parents. I didn’t have a car, and all I had was baking. All I had was the kitchen,” she recounts. Trying recipes with friends allowed her to open up and have conversations that may not have otherwise come about.
Cooking gave solace to many from the social disconnection of quarantine at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic; recipes for whipped coffee went viral, and posts of homemade bread were inescapable. Altman believes this trend illustrates the therapeutic aspect of cooking and baking.
“It’s amazing to have control over something in such an uncontrollable world, like being able to try new recipes and see the manifestation of your hard work,” she says.
In May 2022, Altman spoke at the White House as a part of a Mental Health Awareness Month event. At the event, Altman met Theadora R. Touchton and Alvaro S. Gonzalez from Sueñito Media, an independent production company focused on increasing Latinx and LGBTQ+ representation in film.
The two parties have partnered to create a documentary — part of which was filmed at this year’s BITYMI. Altman hopes that this documentary will show people that they “don’t have to be a celebrity to start something big.”
“I just feel like vulnerability is contagious in a lot of ways,” Altman says. “So many people have come to share their stories with me, because I’ve shared my stories with them.”
Correction: March 11, 2023
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Theadora R. Touchton.