The pandemic baking boom has been well documented. Ovens worked overtime, banana bread was trending again, and countless homemade sourdough starters were tended — a good thing too given the coming yeast shortages. An avid baker before COVID left many of us scouring the shelves for leaveners, I immediately understood the impulse.
I crave the precision baking requires, the way a new recipe demands my full attention. Baking is my version of meditation; a practice to slow the churning of an anxious mind. I forget everything else long enough to measure carefully, roll and fold the dough just so, and it is the sweetest, most delicious escape. There is nothing quite like the first bite of a flaky biscuit that sings of butter, or the satisfaction that comes from creating something wonderful with humble ingredients and our own hands.
I don’t mind cooking, and when done in anticipation of a shared meal with loved ones I might even enjoy it, but it is still work — increasingly so now that all of our meals are cooked at home with an adorable 11-month-old underfoot. Obligatory birthday cakes aside, baking is not something I need to do, and that, I think, is part of its appeal. Over a year into the pandemic, and a few weeks into another stay at home order, I choose to bake often, because I want to, and because I can.
Let me explain. I am a recovered (recovering?) dieter. It started innocently enough, with a 30-day sugar-free challenge with colleagues (fun fact: nachos and wine were deemed sugar free; apples not so much), progressed to much a more serious Whole30 (fun fact: daily consumption of steamed cauliflower and broccoli may result in gastrointestinal distress), and ended in a wholehearted embrace of a “low-carb paleo” lifestyle (nothing fun to report here). I devised a simple system that allowed me to indulge in the food I was missing with increasing intensity. From Friday evening to Sunday night, I ate whatever I wanted, and on Monday I resumed the program.
Worse than the teasing I endured at work for heating organic hotdogs (carb-free!) first thing in the morning, were the frequent compliments I received for my efforts. “You’re so good,” they would say when I declined the baked goods brought in by generous colleagues, as if my eating habits were a reflection of my character. “You look amazing,” they would say, and I would wonder what that meant for the body I inhabited before bread was a cheat food and exercise was penance for a big meal.
I justified my behaviour as a pursuit of health, an easy lie given our cultural obsession with wellness and the idea of food as medicine. I wasn’t partaking in much refined sugar, but I was binging on podcasts and articles about the virtues of eating like our ancestors did. I don’t want to dismiss the real benefits of diet and exercise; I only want to say that this way of living was, for me, deeply unhealthy.
I am incredibly lucky. I was on the precipice of serious disorder and have often wondered what would have happened had I not met my now husband when I did. I remember the day he handed me a jar of overnight oats to pack for work. It was a lovely gesture and a perfectly healthy breakfast by any estimation, but one that my program did not allow. In my hesitation to eat them, I finally saw the hole I was in and began the slow climb out. It took years to stop feeling guilty for eating dessert on a Wednesday or pasta on a Monday. Believe me, this sentence is as ridiculous for me to write as it is to read. But it’s also the truth, and my way of explaining what baking means to me. It is not just a temporary pandemic escape; it is also a small act of rebellion, a dismissal of rules that never served me, and the best way I know to take care of myself.
Baking is not a requirement of daily living, but my life is richer for it. On most nights, you’ll find my husband and I indulging in a slice of something I’ve baked. Tonight, it was dark chocolate oat bars with a shortbread crust. Tomorrow, I’ll make my favourite chocolate chip cookies to carry us to next week. The baby is asleep, and we are finding happiness on a plate. I know we aren’t the only ones baking through it. Bon appetit!
Abiella King is an HR senior manager who recently moved back to her childhood home of London, Ontario with her husband and son.