As the country shuts down city by city and families are being confined to their homes, one thing’s for sure: Americans are baking.
“I came home from work last week one night, I had just anchored ‘All Things Considered,’ and I was feeling anxious and like everything is spinning out of control,” said Mary Louise Kelly, 49, an NPR anchor, over the phone from her home in Washington, D.C. “It’s always a joy, when you do something abstract like broadcasting, to do something physical. Also, it just seemed so damned wholesome — a loaf of banana bread. It felt like what we needed, all warm and golden, like this must be a force for good in uncertain times.”
Kelly adapted a pumpkin bread recipe, throwing in chopped-up caramels, using brown sugar instead of white, all-purpose flour instead of wheat, and in place of pumpkin, three “extremely ripe” bananas.
Then she posted to Twitter: “Anyone else in their kitchen sipping red wine and aggressively baking banana bread at 9:40 p.m.? No? Just me? #coronavirusbaking.”
Quickly, thousands of likes and comments — and more pictures of fresh baked goods — poured in. “It was a moment where absolutely everybody felt the same way, where Twitter hits a nerve, and you think ‘Oh my God, I’m not alone. There’s someone else out there with a glass of wine, baking at 9 o’clock at night,’ ” Kelly said.
Over the past few weeks, social media has been flooded with photos of “isolation loaves” and “quarantine cookies.” Baking necessities such as flour and yeast are in short supply, and bestselling bread makers that were in stock as of mid-March are now sold out across the internet.
But for those who can still get the ingredients, baking provides a combination of distraction, comfort and — especially with bread recipes, which can take days to complete — something to look forward to.
This is especially true of sourdough, which doesn’t require yeast but does require patience over several days of fermentation to make a starter, and hours to autolyse and proof the dough and let it rise. It’s the bread loaf of choice for Craig Spencer, an avid baker and emergency room doctor in New York City, who said he saw this pandemic coming in time to stock up on flour.
Spencer’s long shifts at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital are unimaginably trying, especially as facilities are running out of ventilators, masks and other essential supplies. When he is home with his family, Spencer, 38, allocates time to bake.
“The thing I think about when I’m making my bread is only my bread,” he said over the phone, while folding his levain in his Manhattan apartment. “I’m not thinking about coronavirus or anything else.”
This is a coping mechanism for plenty of others on or near the front line of the pandemic response.
Jeremy Konyndyk, 42, a pandemic preparedness expert and senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, took up baking five years ago while he was director of the U.S. Agency for International Development Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance under the Obama administration and was helping to lead the U.S. response to Ebola. He continues to research disease response and policy.
While Konyndyk no longer bears the burden of responsibility for leading the national charge against a pandemic, these are still anxious times for him.
When his thoughts are spiraling, Konyndyk resets his focus by baking. (He is also a sourdough enthusiast.)
“The nature of my job was: You’re trying to make some very, very bad things somewhat less bad, constantly trying to stave off harm and damage. What I began to appreciate about baking was it was just very different from that,” Konyndyk said. “It’s all about creating, and you have a tangible product at the end.”
“In disaster relief — famine, war, epidemics — the crisis goes on and on and on. There’s no point where you’re finished,” he said. “Baking lets you take a project from beginning to end.”
For similar reasons, Lily Adams, a fellow at the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown University, and a former staffer for the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and then Kamala Harris, spent a recent day of social isolation making croissants.
She used a many-step recipe with requirements she’d seen on “The Great British Baking Show.”
“I thought, it kind of looks impossible, so I might as well try it, because who’s going to know if it’s a complete failure?” Adams, 33, said. “It’s not like I’m having a dinner party.”
“In politics, if something goes wrong, there are a million possible explanations for why it didn’t go as planned,” she said. “But baking is a science. It’s all about chemical reactions. So if something doesn’t turn out like you’d hoped, there’s usually a very quick explanation. It’s nice certainty in a life or a career path that doesn’t have that.”
Recipes don’t need to be complicated to offer a respite from chaos. Desiree Stennett, 31, a business reporter in Memphis, Tennessee, said she decided to spend part of a recent weekend on a no-knead loaf after a grueling week of on-the-ground reporting. “I picked this recipe because the YouTube videos promised it would not go wrong, and I don’t have the mental capacity to fail at bread making right now,” she said.
Spencer’s current routine is to proof his loaves overnight, bake them in the morning, and while they’re in the oven, tend to media requests that have been rolling in since Barack Obama retweeted (and praised) Spencer’s account of a day in the ER. Then he will enjoy some wonderful bread with his family before heading back to the hospital for the next shift.
“We have a 16-month old, my wife is working more than a full-time job, I have three jobs including the clinical one — like everyone else, we’re just trying to figure out how to do this, to map efficiency and time to get the most work done,” Spencer said. “We haven’t really figured it out yet, but at least we have bread.”