Not so long ago — but when you sit to stew on it, more like a couple lifetimes — everyone you knew was baking. In the depths of quarantine, with not much else to do at the end of the day but wile away the hours, baking sourdough bread, elaborately icing cakes, decorating cookies, or laminating pastries (if you were really dedicated) was a pretty good way to make the clock hands move faster. For hours, you could focus on the sweet task in front of you, and at the end — whaddayaknow — there would be a nice little reward.
Though it was a trope long before the pandemic began, an interesting side effect of many people discovering baking in recent history was the idea that the hobby could cure, or at the very least forestall, the pandemic-induced or exacerbated depression lurking in so many of our minds. In the earliest days of quarantine, the luckiest among us could pretend this was a jaunty little sleepover: What homesteading projects could we take on and talk about together? How could this help us process these collective big feelings? Would baking this loaf of sourdough make us angry, sad, happy, or blissfully ignorant of the mess all around us? Grocery stores had flour and yeast shortages as baking became the prescription for all that ailed us emotionally. But a few years later, in reflection, it’s time to ask: Did it work?
No one has searched more for the answer to this question than Tanya Bush. In November 2020, Bush — a freelance baker, writer, and grad student — began the Instagram account @will.this.make.me.happy, where she chronicles her regular dessert-making, asking whether or not her “anti-depressant confections” will make her happy. When she began the account, “it was the heyday of the stress-baking article, those pop-y prescriptions that appeared each week with claims that baking banana bread might alleviate existential dread and malaise,” Bush recalled over email. “I’d been making sweets as a distraction, but so far it hadn’t had much efficacy. I decided to document my quest for a pastry-cure as an experiment on Instagram.” Bush was looking for a place to complain, as she put it, as well as a place where she could find some camaraderie among bakers who were probing the same question.
The format of each Instagram post is always the same: a disembodied hand holds up an elegant baked good against a pastel striped background. They all look delicious: a banoffee tart with dulce de leche, toasted black sesame ice cream on a wafer cone, brown butter raspberry financiers with pistachio glaze. One would think any anxious person would at least find emotional respite from these baked treats. But, most often for Bush, the answer to the question “will this make me happy?” is no.
“No. Raspberry lemon panna cotta in the shape of a brownstone did not keep my anxiety from corroding any facade of normalcy.”
“No. Cacio e Pepe Scones with chilis and chives did not ease my annual descent into melancholy as the days get increasingly short and dark.”
“No. Olive oil lemon cake with mint and chantilly cream did not help me establish “healthy boundaries” between my personal and professional lives.”
Bush is no stranger to the maxim that baking is a balm to sadness. “It’s conventional wisdom by now to say we were all desperately seeking something, anything, that might distract or provide comfort from the slow-motion disaster unfolding around us,” Bush said. During the height of the pandemic, baking, in many ways, conveniently offered that. “It was a way to get offline and away from dismal news. It was a mode of creation that didn’t require enormous skill, just being present. Baking projects can be completed in a handful of minutes or can stretch long over the course of a few days, offering immediate gratification or the pleasure of a longer-term undertaking.”
Knowing all of this, Bush was inspired to put her baking skills, which she learned as a pastry cook in Brooklyn, to good use. All she needed was to get in touch with and articulate her anxious feelings in an Instagram caption. “Not to brag, but I’m a carnival of fretful anxieties bundled together into a Brooklyn-dwelling, mid-twenties creative,” Bush said. “So, I’ve got a lot of natural material to draw upon.” The baked goods were made, the posts continued, bakers empathizing with the struggle continued to hit the follow button.
Did baking make Bush happy? Mostly no, but sometimes maybe, and even on the rare occasion yes. “Although I knew that baking could be meditative, I also viewed — and still view — claims of pastry-as-panacea as somewhat farfetched,” Bush said. “This is why much of the Will This Make Me Happy project has been dominated by the decisive ‘no.’ ... Still, I have definitely found that baking brings happiness when it becomes a forum for meaningful connection and mutual appreciation.”
There were two memorable instances where baking had the intended effect: once when Bush gave away free cookies in the park and another when she led a bake sale to benefit some of New York’s mutual aid organizations. “In both of these settings, I was making things that made people happy,” Bush said. “Even if it wasn’t exactly curing my own anxiety, it did make me feel useful.” The caption on the post of the cookie giveaway showed levity in an otherwise grim state of affairs. “Yes,” Bush wrote. “Toasted s’mores cookies shared on a spring day will most assuredly bring me happiness.”
An assurance of happiness practically comes stamped on bags of flour and sugar; the online baking community is cheerful, earnest, and supportive; and the vast majority of baked goods look joy-inducingly pleasant. Baking can be distracting, and the end result has the benefit of being edible and sweet, but like Bush, I baked a delirious, dizzying number of baked goods over the pandemic and I wouldn’t say the sum total of that effort made me happy, per se. “We know that baking can be immensely pleasurable, or meditative,” Bush said, “but is ultimately an implausible antidote to the ails of our moment.”
Baking passes the time. Baking is a relief. Baking is fun sometimes and frustrating sometimes. And in general the past few years, baking did exactly what I wanted it do: make the time pass faster and keep me away from reading the news.
But will baking make you happy? Maybe. Depends on who you’re asking.