Bread — maybe you’ve heard of it? The combination of water, flour, yeast, and salt, staple of many Western diets for thousands of years? Social media flex of tech bros and tech bros only? But maybe you haven’t. In the alarming word slurry of Google Trends during a pandemic (“vaccine” and “unemployment” are doing great!), the number of people searching “bread” hit an all-time high this week.
An ever-increasing number of Americans are staying at home to help slow the spread of COVID-19 through their communities, and they need something to do. Anyone without a sewing machine for making homemade masks to shore up our government’s shamefully low stockpile appears to be baking bread. It makes sense: Using the no-knead and sourdough recipes that have become popular over the past decade, baking bread at home works best when you’re there for hours on end, with time to tend to dough between its long rests and rises. It’s not an accident that bread baking caught on with work-from-home professions like writing and tech. Few other people voluntarily stayed in their houses that often for that long. No longer.
Another thing that may be spurring the bread boom is that for the first time in many Americans’ living memories, we’ve seen the bread run out. Cleared-out supermarket shelves were local phenomena during disasters, but a national run on staples, including bread, is a new and scary spectacle, even if food shortages are a sign of panic-buying rather than actual breakdown. Unlike eggs or milk or, um, toilet paper, if the bread runs out, you can just make your own.
In the locust plague logic of the coronavirus anxiety shoppers, now the flour and yeast are running out. Many grocery stores are temporarily out of stock, and King Arthur Flour has instituted a two-bag maximum for all online orders, and cancelled rush shipping. Bill Tine, King Arthur’s VP of marketing, says the two-item limits were instituted today to ease operations; the company has plenty of supply, but heavy eight-bag orders were slowing down shipping. Tine says it’s clear customers are not hoarding the flour, because the traffic on the company’s recipes is hitting record highs. On Sunday, March 22, traffic was higher than the day before Thanksgiving, and it site has been breaking records ever since. “We will probably hit a million people a day at some point,” Tine says. Usually King Arthur’s most popular recipe is Easy Cheesecake; right now, the top recipes are all for savory breads, with the top spot going to sourdough starter.
The pandemic’s food impact began with everyone hoarding beans, but it’s unclear if all the proud new bean owners have taken the jump of cooking up a pot of them yet. The Google Trends on “bean” are ticking upwards, but not with bread’s exponential oomph. Serious cooks already found solace in cooking beans before the pandemic, but the emotional appeal of bread has a much larger reach. Bread for many in America is civilization, and when civilization seems to be breaking down, it’s reassuring to mix, knead, proof, shape, and bake a little miniature relic of it at home — every day, until the hazy, unknown point when this is over.