Why is Everyone Baking Bread During Quarantine?
After shelter-in-place orders were issued, I drove back to my hometown to quarantine with my family. Despite the joy we felt from being reunited after such a long time, it wasn’t long before an unspoken cloud of restlessness and cooped-up tension seemed to loom over the entire household. No matter how focused my family tried to be with work or how often we were (safely!) going outside to go on a walk to clear our heads, it seemed as if we couldn’t escape the cloud.
Thankfully, we found some escape in the kitchen. My mom had recently picked up the new quarantine hobby of baking bread - and according to my social media feeds, she wasn’t the only one.
Bread is one of the most popular and oldest foods in the world, solidifying its role not only as a common source of nutrients throughout history but also as a symbol. Within the Abrahamic religions, bread represents sustenance, survival, life, forgiveness, and ultimately, salvation. After all, Jesus is the bread of life. Even beyond a religious context, bread (and its availability and cost) has been a major marker of social, political, and economic upheaval. The French Revolution, the Egyptian Revolution, and Venezuela’s Bread War stand as testament. The delineation of what ingredients (and thus, types of loaves) are available to certain economic classes is tied to larger conversations about food accessibility, income disparities, and health & nutrition.
Domestically, bread has played a role in society’s stability as well. The Boston Bread Riots (1710-1713), the New York Flour Riot (1837), and the Southern Bread Riots (1863) all stemmed from the uneven distribution of food and resources. Even today, the intersection between food and wealth continues with the meme establishment of avocado toast as a critique of millennial spending habits and how if we could all stop overpaying for something as simple as bread, we could all own homes. If it wasn’t evident before, it is now: Bread is political.
With the strain that COVID-19 has placed on the global food supply chain, shoppers rushed to buy bread, making bread one of the many essential items grocery stores struggled to keep in stock. However, as grocery stores respond to demands, it isn’t bread that is out of stock but rather its ingredients.
Red Star Yeast, a popular American yeast brand, has already issued a statement on its website citing difficulties keeping products stocked in stores and online. Already, experts warn that a flour shortage may be imminent as some countries begin halting wheat exports while others ramp up purchases.
So why is pandemic baking so popular?
Perhaps people are looking for something to do. With stretches of time previously devoted to commuting, errand running, and the likes, baking bread might just be an easy way to pass time. However, why not devote this free time to mastering other baked goods such as cookies or cakes? Or even dinner dishes such as casseroles or pot roast?
There may be a couple of reasons.
On a practical level, the beauty of bread lays in its simplicity: an iconic combination of flour, yeast, salt, and water. The barriers to breadmaking are less intimidating in comparison to other popular quarantine hobbies people have picked up such as sewing, growing food, or learning a new skill. Bread ingredients are cheaper when compared to buying a sewing machine, the time scale is shorter when compared to plants growing, and the learning curve is less steep when compared to acquiring new skills. Furthermore, in comparison to its sweeter counterparts, devoting ingredients and time to making bread seems like the more responsible nutritional choice.
Alternatively, baking bread can be a soothing pastime, akin to a form of cooking therapy that asks the baker for their undivided attention. The process requires a vigilant awareness, from waiting for the yeast to activate to monitoring the effects of what too little nuts or too much sugar could do to a loaf. Many of the body’s senses are involved: the tactile feel of kneading and scraping the sticky dough from hands, the faint alcoholic smell emitting from an unbaked loaf right before going into the oven, the crackle of a sharp bread knife sawing through a freshly baked loaf, and of course, that satisfactory familiar, warm taste of a loaf done to perfection (perhaps after the umpteenth try). Baking bread, though perhaps a bit high maintenance, can offer a reprieve from the stress and anxiety that many people are feeling at this time.
But analyzing the appeal of bread goes even further. There is a scientific draw to bread as well. Carbohydrates help the brain get tryptophan via insulin which in turn increases serotonin in the body. This not only stabilizes mood but is also helpful in managing anxiety. The positive associations people have with bread, developed through the senses and memory, are powerful in creating a sense of comfort. Aided further by social media, photos of freshly baked bread help build connectedness as people are forced to stay physically apart. As people turn to food as a coping mechanism, bread is a great vehicle to not only bake the fruits of your labor but to enjoy them as well.
As people continue their bread journey, it will be interesting to see how the food industry will be impacted. Will cooking habits last post-quarantine? Will there be a prevalence of bread pans, a surplus of homemade jams and nut butter to accompany all this freshly baked bread?
Regardless, I’m fully expecting to be invited over for avocado toast once quarantine is over.