“If someone you know is getting deeply into making bread from scratch,” the comedian Ellory Smith tweeted a few months ago, “they are deeply depressed I promise you.” This sentiment was retweeted more than 20,000 times, mostly by people who had actually gotten deeply into making bread from scratch, or those who watched these new sourdough maestros Instagram their obsession (and depression).
Baking as an act of radical self and community care has been an increasingly important part of American life, especially for marginalized people, during this increasingly difficult time to be an American. “I didn’t know what more I could do with my grief, disappointment and rage,” Tangerine Jones explained recently of her coinage of the term “Rage Baking” in 2015. “Being black in America means you’re solid in the knowledge that folks don’t give a true flying f**k about you or anyone who looks like you.” In 2020, the writer and bread baker (and Eater contributor) Dayna Evans coined the phrase Sadness Bread to describe how baking can be a sign of mental distress and also one of the few things that help it.
Sadness Bread seems like it’s from another era, one that existed roughly three weeks ago. Now, as the novel coronavirus pandemic and its societal effects wrap around the world, the distressed cooks of America are concerned with downright survival. A new rustic foodstuff has emerged to fill this emotional void: Panic Beans.
There are relatively few things any individual can do in the face of this new pandemic. While it’s common to compare COVID-19 (the disease) to the flu, there are effective drugs and vaccines for the flu, as well as a wealth of scientific knowledge. The novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is, well, novel, so there is not yet a vaccine, and treatment options are still emerging. As a result, humanity has to rely on more old-fashioned techniques: The first and most important line of defense is washing our damn hands. Beyond that, there’s actual quarantine for those who are sick or potentially exposed, and a mix of social distancing and social outreach for the rest of us.
Guidance in the United States, especially in cities with community spread like my home, Los Angeles, is ambiguous and shifting day to day. The extreme lag in testing — as of March 12, only 247 people have been tested in LA County, with roughly 30 confirmed cases — only adds to the uncertainty. There is an ever-increasing sense that we should be prepared to shelter at home for an extended period of time, which has already happened in hotspots around the world. Staples at the grocery store are going fast, some of them goofily on trend (oat milk), some of questionable necessity (bottled water) and some with an inherent air of apocalyptic preparedness about them. Like beans.
In mainstream American culture, beans have long been associated with the end of the world and beloved by those who think they might survive it. It’s only recently that a combination of new approaches to home cooking and concern over the environment has prompted food-minded Americans who did not grow up making beans to embrace them. Before then, beans were bunker food, the staple for imagined dire times perpetually around the corner. Alice MacQueen, an evolutionary geneticist who studies beans and also, full disclosure, a friend, once had a difficult time finding a small amount of seed beans for an experiment. The package she received from Amazon was wrapped in triple gold mylar and festooned in Bible quotes. “I got the package and thought wow, it looks like I bought this from preppers.” No one else, at least a few years ago, was dedicated enough to grow beans on a small scale. Now, as bean mania is leading more gardeners to try growing their own, MacQueen is a truly next level bean hoarder, with 1,800 pounds of beans in cold storage as part of her work addressing how beans can help us survive an even larger and slower-burning crisis (climate change).
It makes a twisted cultural sense then that beans, already growing in popularity, would become prize hoarded goods during a time when otherwise sane people are choosing to rewatch Contagion. Rancho Gordo, the country’s most heralded purveyor of heirloom and speciality beans, is experiencing overwhelming demand. Owner Steve Sando says for the past two weeks, the company has been fielding over a thousand orders a day, while normal days run more like 150 to 200. At first, Sando thought the uptick was due to the increased popularity of beans or even his own marketing. Then he realized what was really going on. After the president’s speech on Wednesday night, orders spiked again. “[That] night was really upsetting, and then watching the orders roll in. The only silver lining is people are cooking at home and spending more time with people they know and love.”
Rancho Gordo, which is based in Napa, California, will now take longer to ship orders, moving from one business day to five to seven to handle the demand. Yesterday, Sando held a meeting with his warehouse workers to ask what they wanted to do if and when schools closed, since most have children. The company already offers what Sando calls “generous” PTO, and he says that he wants the staff to be part of deciding how to weather the disorienting mix of crisis and boom in the days ahead.
Rancho Gordo’s beans are a crop, and they planted expecting growth in 2020; right now Sando thinks running out won’t be on the table before at least June or July. But when they’re gone, they’re gone. “You can’t just shake a tree and hope you get more. Everyone could be hoarding, and then sales might plummet. Or it could mean they order them and think, Oh god these are good. Right now, I’m not reflecting, not thinking, I’m acting in the best way I can.”
Washington Post food and dining editor Joe Yonan is also an uneasy recipient of the panic beans bump. His new cookbook, Cool Beans, was released in early February, as the potential global threat of the novel coronavirus was beginning to emerge. Yonan says Amazon’s order of the book, which should have lasted for six weeks, sold out in two days, and sales have been brisk ever since. “It’s hard for me to tell how much is related to stockpiling, but it definitely seems like people are continuing to talk about it longer than they otherwise they would have,” Yonan says.
Yonan is now getting tagged in posts about quarantine cooking but feels uncomfortable boosting them, as glad as he is to offer a resource for those in need of guidance or just a distracting new cooking project. He thinks home cooking and beans’ popularity in particular has been a symptom of our underlying anxiety for a long time. “There’s been a general sense of unease, around the economy and political worries, military tension, but mostly we joked about it, When the zombie apocalypse comes. Now we all are at home thinking, What can I really do?” One answer is make a pot of beans.
In December of last year, around the time (it turns out) the novel coronavirus was first emerging, I published a piece about the rise of bean obsession amongst cooks making these simple, versatile, humble and yet somehow luxurious staples. Beans, I still believe, are a magical thing to cook, little jewels that with water, salt, and long, slow heat yield endless meals. In the face of uncertainty, they are one of our surest bets.
But it’s also heartbreaking to watch beans’ emergency functions come online in real time; they still offer comfort, but not much delight. Even the fanciest hoards of Christmas limas and eye of the goat tell a dark story. I feel grief now, watching people show off rows of bubbling pots on Instastories for #quarantinecooking. I feel rage that thanks to our government’s abysmal response to this pandemic, control comes in the form of creative survival cooking, for those lucky enough to have the option. But I did make a pot of beans last weekend. And soon I’ll make another, using my pantry to stay home and help flatten the curve. If you have the time and resources, I think you should, too.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent