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Quarantine Baking in Times of Crisis

As many self-quarantine to prevent the spread of COVID-19, people turn to making desserts for comfort

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Woman’s hands spooning icing on a layer cake.
The appeal of “quarantine baking.”
Photo: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

As the novel coronavirus outbreak continues to spread across the U.S., more and more people are staying put inside their homes, whether because they’re at high risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19, their employers are allowing them to work remotely, or they’re choosing to limit contact with others in an effort to mitigate the transmission of the virus for the sake of more vulnerable populations, otherwise known as “flattening the curve.” Unsurprisingly, those who are stuck at home with no conclusive end in sight are hungry for ways to pass the time, judging by the sheer amount of articles about what to stream, how to keep kids entertained, and how to “kill boredom” during a quarantine.

Among the plethora of activities one could do with an abundance of free time at home, baking seems to be a no-brainer. Just scroll through Instagram, or do a quick Twitter search for “anxiety baking” or “stress baking,” and you’ll find all the cakes, pies, and cookies that momentary recluses are taking solace in these days.

Baking in troubled times is nothing new: anxiety baking, as documented by The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull, and “procrastibaking,” as covered by Julia Moskin at New York Times, are both phenomena that have gained new purchase in recent years, a response to present-day collective distress and working conditions. American millennials “seem to have turned to weekend baking as a salve for the ambient anxiety of being alive,” Mull writes; as writer Kat Kinsman told her, baking is a form of self-care, one that’s cheap, easy, and visceral. Meanwhile, procrastibaking — defined by Moskin as “the practice of baking something completely unnecessary, with the intention of avoiding ‘real’ work — is also an answer to stress, often the kind manifested in work. Paraphrasing the words of psychology professor Tim Pychyl, Moskin writes: “procrastibaking … is an unconsciously deployed strategy that makes us feel skilled, nurturing and virtuous in the present while distracting us from the future.”

In the midst of a pandemic, who couldn’t use a salve for their anxiety, or a way to put off thinking about the looming question mark that is the future? In countries like China and South Korea, where COVID-19 transmission has confined residents to their homes for an even longer period of time, “quarantine cooking” has emerged as a common way to pass the time, as people watch online cooking lessons, challenge themselves to make creative uses of limited ingredients, and follow the same viral recipes, often posting and hashtagging the results.

But quarantine baking is not quite the same as quarantine cooking, which often centers around stir fries, soups and stews, or other cobbled-together savory dishes that can be eaten as full meals. In terms of practicality, you could say that sweet baked goods fall somewhere closer to the bottom on a list of necessities during a time of crisis, according to food writer Charlotte Druckman, editor of the book Women on Food. After all, one can only eat so much dessert, and the average person probably doesn’t have heaps of empty space in their fridges and freezers to store multiple loaves of banana bread and pound cake.

But to some, the frivolity is kind of the point of such forms of stress baking; “the content of your product should not be something that you need to make in order to meet your daily nutritional needs,” one procrastibaker told Moskin. For Katie Okamoto, a Los Angeles-based writer who has been baking while under self-quarantine, baked goods are an indulgence, but one better attained through her own labor, rather than buying something off the shelves while stocking up on canned and dried goods earlier this month.

“If you’re spending all this money upfront to buy tons of cans of San Marzano and olive oil, things that actually do make your food budget seem above what it should be for a month because you’re stocking up, you’re probably not going to want to be buying cookies,” says Okamoto. But, she points out, you can buy butter and sugar — which can last for a long time without going bad — and use those ingredients to make the cookies you want, before baking or freezing them for later. “It’s stuff you can squirrel away, but it’s comforting, and it’s indulgent, and I think we all need that right now,” she says.

For Okamoto, quarantine baking is as much about the process as it is about the final product. “It’s a meditative process,” she says, noting that using her hands for baking means she is not on her phone or obsessing over the news. “It may not be the same serotonin as doing exercise, but it’s similar. I’m definitely doing it for mental health.”

That line of thinking has been echoed in other writers’ admissions of why they bake, and even by psychiatry professionals. “Baking is mindful. Mindfulness means paying attention to yourself in the moment and not being in the past or the future, but really being there,” Philip Muskin, a Columbia University psychiatry professor and the secretary of the American Psychiatry Association, told Mull for The Atlantic. As Mull writes: “Muskin says it can have an emotional impact akin to practices that are intended to more directly affect mood, such as meditation or breathing exercises.”

Baking can also imbue a sense of control and creativity, according to Druckman. “I think a lot of it has to do with control, a feeling that you started something and you completed it within a certain period of time,” she says. “A lot of times there’s a disconnect between me craving something and me wanting to bake something … I have a creative idea, I want to find out what happens when I put malt powder into this cake. It stops being about the fact that I ever wanted to eat the cake. I wanted to see what would happen, I wanted to write out the recipe and see if it works.”

Okamoto, who expressed anxiety as a person who has asthma — a preexisting condition that could make her a “high-risk” individual if exposed to COVID-19 — articulated a similar desire for a sense of control and stabilization: “There’s a certain reliability to it. If you cream butter and sugar, you get cookies. That’s one of those things that, no matter what happens in the news, will always be true.”

There is, admittedly, something a little absurdist about the idea of baking a cake during a pandemic — especially in the framing of some of these social media posts, which combine the jitteriness of unease with a parallel-universe expression of abundant leisure time that is normally reserved for staycations. There’s a sense of being sequestered in an apocalyptic adult snow day, at least for those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to work from home, outside the front lines of risk that healthcare workers, gig workers, individuals in the service industry, and so many other people have to live and operate in.

Desserts might be trivial, but sometimes triviality should be embraced. We’re living in absurdist times, after all, and everyone — for the sake of their mental and physical health — deserves a coping mechanism that lends some sense of structure in a chaotic world. Especially one you can share with other people (assuming you’re diligent about keeping a clean kitchen and are regularly washing your hands while preparing food). Okamoto, for instance brings granola and cookies to her fellow self-quarantined, high-risk neighbors. She says: “It’s a way of being connected to people. That’s one of the ways to show care.”

And if you, like many isolated home bakers across the country, have no one to whom you can give the products of your labor — well, as Quartz’s Chase Purdy suggests, you can consider them a gift to yourself. Thank you, and you’re welcome.

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