For much of existence, humans have depended on the alchemy of grain and water as a main source of sustenance.
There’s evidence of bread going back more than 10,000 years, with the ancient Egyptians unlocking the craft of bread leavened with yeast sometime around 1,000 B.C. And ever since, bread has become something bigger than food — it’s a life skill, a literal status symbol and cultural history kneaded into one. Or at least it was until the growth of industrialization and food science in America in the 20th century, giving rise to cheap, chemically adjusted bread that lasts long on the shelf but tastes of very little.
All it took was a world-changing flu pandemic for us to re-examine the gluten we consume. With bread missing from the grocery store shelves and fewer activities to do while in quarantine, everyone apparently looked around and realized that they might as well bake some bread. Instagram and Twitter are crammed full of homemade loaves, and the highlights are hypnotizing: All golden crust and bubbly interior, standing proud on a cutting board.
But baking doesn’t care about your pandemic aspirations, and it doesn’t discriminate on lines of wealth, class or age. Turns out, all of us are capable of turning out some bad, lumpy, dense bread that looks like a middle-school biology experiment gone wrong. The attempt and the failure unifies us to the likes of Henry Cavill and Carly Rae Jepsen. Shitty supermarket bread is gone. Long live shitty homemade bread.
There is something surreal and hilarious about the fact that all we can do to respond to the gloom and anxiety of economic ruin and illness is to punch water and flour together. It’s especially ironic given that bread has long been considered the territory of the “serious” home baker, given that it can be sensitive to subtleties (like room humidity) and messy in untrained hands. Almost everyone who has tried to bake bread, especially a naturally fermented one like sourdough, has a story of abject failure. Amid a rush of quarantine newbies realizing these failures themselves, the jokes write themselves.
On one hand, the viral popularity of homemade bread feels exactly like the same kind of rush we saw with people hoarding toilet paper and water: just a commotion forming around an obvious activity, because people are bad at being original in their reactions. But in the light of a silver lining, the loaves emerging on social media feel like a collective step forward, too. I’ve always been intimidated by making bread at home, primarily because of the trauma of a sourdough loaf that went embarrassingly awry four years ago. Seeing ugly-ass bread on the timeline is proof of that shared experience, and maybe the fundamental humanity underneath it. Good bread represents sustenance, domesticity and even holiness. Better yet, unlike the messed-up world outside today, garbage bread can be fixed with some care and attention.
“Bread is transformative. You’re taking flour, water, salt and yeast and making a beautiful thing that you can share with your family for days on end,” says Matthew Kang, editor of the dining site Eater L.A. and a home baker with a penchant for sourdough. “In uncertain, fearful times, you want something that connects you with something substantial, fulfilling and authentic. I don’t think it’s a matter of people being quarantined so much as people wanting something real and comforting right now.”
It’s this emotional connection that makes it easy to riff on the zodiac signs as homemade breads, or to crack existential punchlines about hollowing out a soft loaf and dying in it. It’s how the artist Tangerine Jones devised “rage baking” as a reaction to the frustration of social injustice and being black in America. It’s why we’ve seen a rise in the trend of “anxiety baking” and “procrastibaking,” especially among millennials who are overworked and worried about settling down. When your 401k is down 70 percent and your job security seems to have disappeared, figuring out the complex alchemy of flour, water and yeast looks and feels like control.
It’s a frightening world out there, rife with an invisible threat that the media shows as a dice-roll killer. It feels like you can’t screw up even one hand-wash or errant conversation, lest you invite the coronavirus into your body for good. In the face of those stakes, people are stepping to the challenge (and elemental pleasure) of making bread worth eating. It’s not easy, as Kang warns me that a lot of sourdough recipes “suck” and that YouTube instructionals might be most helpful for first-timers. “But I love giving bread to my friends and helping them feed their families something delicious,” he adds. “I’ve been delivering bread consistently through the last few weeks.”
I have no idea whether the trend will stick around when the pandemic dies down and the grocery store aisles are full again. But for now, all those misshapen loaves on social media serve as a reminder that it’s still okay to chuckle at failure. And all these attempts have even inspired me to start working on a focaccia recipe, just to see what happens.
The MEL Guide to Life in Quarantine
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- And just be grateful you’re not on an all-Soylent diet.
- Read this before bleaching your hair.
- You might want to take your clothes off as soon as you step inside your house.
- If, by some miracle, you actually have some money left, here’s what you should do with it.
- Want to make a quarantine baby? Here’s what you need to know.