It doesn’t take news coverage for everyone in lockdown during the past few months to know what everyone else is doing. If you follow any friends on social media, any platform at all, you have likely been faced with the most popular quaran-activity of them all. Not doing puzzling, not Zoom dance parties, and while everyone says they will, no one is actually picking up another language. What is everyone showing off? Every loaf, roll, and cookie that comes out of the oven is proudly displayed, the kitchen lighting hopefully accentuating the attractive sheen on the perfectly browned crust. Maybe there’s even a short video to show the first slice, or slow motion to capture the sticky descent of the glaze onto the cinnamon swirls below. The world is baking.
Of course, there are naysayers, people who think it’s a pure game of show-and-tell, amateur bakers trying to fill an Instagram void where they had previously been posting photos of the things they can’t do under current circumstances. These people may be missing some of the parts of baking bread that have nothing to do with the social media attention and happen away from the camera.
Baking is one of the oldest communal acts that human beings can do. Making bread has been one of the primary uses of wheat through history, with the oldest record of making bread was in Stone Age Ireland. Without any sort of rising agent, this wasn’t likely the pleasantest eating experience, but the ancient Egyptians were the pioneers of utilizing yeast in their bread preparation and the bread we know today was on its way into existence. Breaking bread with others, gifting baked goods, these all come from international community roots. Feeding yourself and your family with the efforts of your own hands is an ancient comfort all over the world, particularly in times of trouble. It’s not a surprise that it’s making a comeback now.
The very act of baking bread can allow a person to engage in a little self-therapy. Everyone has heard a lot about mindfulness in the last few years, and baking is an activity that can pull you and keep you in the present moment while you work at it. Baking from scratch requires your full attention: gathering ingredients, measuring, going through the multiple steps of kneading and rising before shaping and baking your final product all keep a mind and hands busy, which can be useful when faced with a restless mind and fingers nervously checking stats on a phone. The physical act of kneading the dough, your whole body working in an almost meditative push and pull between your hands, the dough, and the table, is an act of mindfulness. It’s not running around the block, but there’s an exercise component that can be missing from other at-home activities, even cooking ones.
Then there are the baking worries which can be allowed to replace, if temporarily, the larger ones that are crowding in every day. The other day, when I finally gave in to the baking trend at the request of my housemate, I had to go searching for the giant jar of yeast my dad had given me years ago. It was nestled in the back of the fridge, untouched for years. I wasn’t sure it would proof at all, meaning that my precious dough wouldn’t ever rise. I forgot entirely about the terrible statistics from the news that morning as I eagerly watched the measuring cup with its warm water, yeast, and a little bit of sugar for the foamy proof that the yeast was still viable. You’d have thought I won a prize by my reaction when it poofed up in five minutes. Later that day, dinner plans were supplanted by warm soft pretzels dipped in honey mustard.
The self-reliance and confidence that can grow from being able to make your own bread shouldn’t be underestimated. Clearly this isn’t something one person has discovered; isolation loaves are a current cultural phenomenon, trending on social media as recipes and how-to videos are enjoying up to 700% increased popularity. From the previous shortages of paper towels and toilet paper, grocery stores are reporting shortages of all-purpose flour and yeast. I’m continually impressed by my friends who have embarked on the sourdough starter journey, which, I imagine, fulfills not only the psychological and emotional needs that baking has provided to reduce stress, but also have the added benefit of providing a new “pet.” Every home baker I know who has a sourdough starter has named it, and often refers to it as their “child.” Every home baker I see on Twitter is proud and happy with the things they’re making, even posting their disasters for others to sympathize and laugh with. People are ready to share recipes and tips, forming community even when they can’t share a warm slice of banana bread freshly out of the oven.
Ultimately, maybe it comes down to tapping into an ancient thing all humans have done: used grain and heat and water to make one of the food building blocks of civilization. Or maybe it’s much simpler than that and all boils down to the fact that no matter how impressive your completed 5000 piece puzzle it, you just can’t put butter on it and eat it.