During COVID-19 confinement, homes have become mission control with dedicated spaces for office work, for homeschooling, and for “cocooning” within a private sphere surrounded with creature comforts. The kitchen is an area where we are spending much of our time. In an effort to produce healthy, practical family meals and to relieve the stress and boredom of staying home, people have begun cooking and baking from scratch on a scale not seen in this country in decades.
Food is powerful — it provides nourishment and energy for our bodies and influences the maintenance of good health. But it’s more than just tangible sustenance; food can be a source of comfort and act as a pleasing, psychological reward. A great community-builder, food can help bridge cultural and generational divides. When we break bread together, even virtually, it’s more than just eating. It’s a meaningful experience that can foster cooperation and enrich relationships, whether they are well-established or brand new.
The First Comfort Foods
The art of cooking likely evolved as a survival mechanism to improve the flavor and digestibility of food. For most of recorded history, food preparation stood at the center of people’s daily lives. The oldest-known comfort food recipes — including lamb stew, barley cakes, and Pashrutum (“unwinding”), an allium-based broth — are inscribed on 4,000-year-old cuneiform clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia, now part of Yale University’s Babylonian Collection. When prepared by international scholars, they were pronounced to be pretty good!
Colonial cooking was laborious, requiring the mastery of a staggering number of skills. Ingredients were painstakingly produced, gathered, and prepared. After a proper cooking fire was built on the hearth, foods slowly cooked over hot coals. A cast-iron Dutch oven (or “bake kettle”) was an essential cooking pot. Food was often served on a long, rustic “table-board.” In late 18th century Colonial America, a separate room and table for dining gained in popularity. An American institution was born as people began the tradition of gathering around the table for family meals.
Who’s Been in the Kitchen?
Recent research on the sociology of eating shows that since the mid-1960s, home cooking has become a less-important feature of American eating practices, despite our national obsession with culinary celebrities and TV cooking shows. Particularly in decline are the long, leisurely meals with members of a household gathered around the table at a fixed hour.
More than half of all consumer food expenditures in the United States have been on meals prepared and eaten away from home, particularly fine dining, casual, fast-casual, and fast-food restaurants. To meet this challenge, grocery stores have ramped up prepared food offerings and even installed their own restaurants. People have relied more and more on the convenience of ready-to-eat-foods, which require minimal work at home.
Women traditionally have done the majority of home cooking, but that’s changing too. After the 1960s, more women joined the workforce, which meant less time for kitchen tasks. Meals had to be quick and easy! A 2017 report in the Harvard Business Review states that home cooking was still in a long, slow decline despite its health and economic benefits; only 10 percent of men and women polled really loved to cook. The rest were ambivalent or hated it.
In 2019, new technologies streamlined meal preparations, which renewed interest in eating at home, but not necessarily cooking. Consumers used apps on their smartphones to order meal kit services, restaurant meals, and ready-cooked meals through grocery store deliveries. Food industry analyst David Portalatin noted, “Due to a changing workforce, the ease of online shopping, and the boom in streaming entertainment, there are fewer reasons than ever to leave the house.” After March 11, his words took on an entirely new meaning.
The New Food Influencers
Scientist Jonathan Schattke said it best, “Necessity is the mother of invention, it is true, but its father is creativity…” During pandemic stay-at-home periods, people around the world have turned to the blogosphere to search for creative uses for pantry staples, for tips on cooking with unfamiliar ingredients, and for online tutorials to try new cooking techniques. Parents are searching for cooking projects to entertain their kids. Recipes and food photos are flowing freely from various types of social media.
As kitchen novices turn to the internet and social blogging networks for guidance, chefs and food personalities have been teaching cooking classes from home on social networks like Instagram Live, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. This type of social media presence inspires home cooks and facilitates fundraising events for food service workers.
Navigating the Pandemic Kitchen
During the pandemic, people have had time to experiment with hands-on cooking, baking, and fermenting projects; many are discovering their pioneering spirits and culinary DNA. New challenges have arisen, like the initial frenzy of stocking up on weeks’ worth of staples and comfort foods. Cooking from overloaded pantries has caused some people to feel like they are participating on Chopped, the Food Network show that requires participants to transform a mishmash of incompatible ingredients into delicious meals.
Shopping has taken on a treasure hunt mentality for many home cooks. Some essential products and foods have been difficult to come by as global supply chains are interrupted. Ingredient rationing can be daunting. As one determined cook searched for a suitable quarantine recipe blog, she declared, “I’m not using a whole stick of butter or six eggs for one batch of anything. Forget about it!”
We’ve all seen the stark photos of empty grocery shelves. As panic buying began in March, bathroom tissue became the international symbol of consumer hoarding. Creative bakers were soon paying homage to the paper commodity in the form of cakes that resembled toilet rolls. The clever confections have been a hit in global bakeries and supermarkets, including locally at Publix. Not to be cheeky, but we could be in worse shape! The first bathroom paper produced in the United States in the late 1800s contained splinters!
For people who are social distancing, baking rituals like stirring up a quick bread or kneading yeast dough can instill a sense of calmness and control during a very uncontrollable time. When the interest in “made from scratch” baking exploded in the spring, coveted ingredients like yeast, flour, and sugar were difficult to find. Flour mills and grocery stores were caught off guard by the rapid, increased demand. Dry yeast sales jumped 410 percent in one month, according to Nielson, a market research firm. King Arthur Baking Company saw a 271 percent increase in pounds of flour sold in June. General Mills reported a 75 percent increase in the sales of flour and baking mixes, initially selling out as shoppers swept grocery shelves bare.
The internet is one of the top ways people are learning new baking skills — essential since many types of bread, and even tortillas, are occasionally in short supply. The most searched-for bread recipes on social media include banana quick bread, artisanal sourdough, and no-knead bread. Bread is basically flour, water, salt, and yeast. Yeasts may be as underappreciated as viruses; their interaction between biology and baker is complex. And unlike the coronavirus, making bread usually results in a satisfying endgame.
Instead of commercial dry yeast, sourdough bread is made with a homemade flour and water starter in which a symbiotic microbial community blooms. The microbes can come from the flour, the environment, or even the baker’s hands. Allowing ample time for the starter’s long, slow development and for the dough to rise will enhance the complex, nuanced flavors of the baked bread.
Baker’s yeast is required for the celebrated, no-knead boule developed by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City. The recipe is published in his cookbook, My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method. This bread requires little work but also demands time to rise, which recently most people have had in surplus. The dough is cooked in a covered, enameled, cast-iron baker or a heavy, cast-iron pot. The rustic, aromatic round loaf provides sweet solace and comfort, like being wrapped in a warm blanket. If you don’t have his cookbook, here’s the recipe from renowned CBS correspondent Martha Teichner, who is a fellow member of Les Dames d’ Escoffier International in Charleston: www.cbsnews.com/news/recipe-jim-laheys-basic-no-knead-bread
Technology is transforming our lives, and since the spread of COVID-19, the use of digital tools for grocery shopping is accelerating faster than expected. The restaurant landscape has changed drastically and restaurant models are evolving. After supermarkets ran short on supplies, restaurants stepped up to sell surplus inventories of staple ingredients and house specialties. Grocery essentials have been offered by several area food establishments, including Panera, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Hall’s Chophouse, Showmars (Rock Hill), Red Drum (Charleston), and Blue Moon (Spartanburg). Many of these hybrid restaurant-market models are set to become welcome, permanent fixtures. What’s next? Drive-through supermarkets?
This “new normal” is a time of transition, reinvention, and global social responsibility. Many positives in life can be appreciated and latched onto, whether it’s as simple as the taste and aroma of a piece of freshly baked bread or a leisurely meal with the people you love — even if it’s by video chat.