At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Massachusetts-based baker Teri Culletto began posting ornate homemade loaves of bread under the pseudonym Van Dough. The loaves of bread were detailed, with strips of bell pepper draped over onions to form a flower, and stalks of asparagus laid like delicate stems. Culletto’s creations spread like wildfire, and soon home cooks across the country were decorating homemade focaccia with elaborate patterns of chopped vegetables.
Garden focaccia, like whipped coffee and baked feta pasta, all fall under the bizarre category of pandemic food trends, or recipes that surged in popularity while the United States government was still enforcing a federal stay-at-home order. Pandemic food trends ran the gamut in terms of preparation and taste, but they all emerged as a response to the emotional stress of lockdown. Examining a definitive list of viral foods between 2020-2022, a consistent theme emerges: bread.
Recipes for Van Dough’s focaccia, homemade sourdough, cloud bread and banana bread were popular across phone screens and American kitchens during the lockdown, inspiring deep fascination and a renaissance of the age-old practice of baking bread. But why this seemingly inconspicuous food emerged as the poster child for pandemic amateur cooking paints a fascinating picture of the U.S. While some Americans were privileged to bake bread loaves, others were forced onto breadlines as hunger skyrocketed.
Baking bread as a response to massive socioeconomic and political crises represents a strong duality in American culture. In the past century, baking bread surged in popularity as a patriotic response to ration requirements. In 1945, recipes for the oat-based Wartime Loaf emerged as flour became an increasingly rare commodity. During the Great Depression, baking cornbread rose in popularity as it incorporated non-perishable pantry staples when fresh ingredients were unavailable. As some American grocery stores closed their doors during COVID-19, baking bread was both an emotional coping mechanism and a creative way to use shelf-stable ingredients like flour.
Throughout the pandemic, Americans took pride in widely sharing their homemade bread on social media as a marker of resilience and strength. Researchers at the University of Gastronomic Sciences noted that baking and sharing bread recipes online reduced lockdown stress and rejected the sterility of daily pandemic procedures. Kneading dough is an intensive and messy process that helps people cope in an environment where microorganisms are the enemy, providing necessary stress relief.
The national unity created through bread-making marks another instance of bread emerging as a response to extreme circumstances like World War II, the Great Depression and COVID-19. The elaborate vegetable designs on Van Dough’s focaccia even harken back to the Victory Gardens of the 1940s, where Americans were encouraged to plant vegetable gardens as a self-sufficient response to World War II-era food rationing. When Americans bake bread in times of crisis (particularly in a socially distant environment), they create a communal outlet that mollifies global anxieties.
However, while baking bread has consistently reflected a unified American response to major change, it is easy to dismiss the trend as a culinary Rosie the Riveter. While in many ways bread has become a patriotic coping mechanism for ration requirements, it also exposes the dark underbelly of the American food system.
During the Great Depression, home cooks painstakingly sifted their meager flour allotments into symbols of national resilience while breadlines sprung up in major cities. For every loaf baked in a home to show national solidarity, another was being hurriedly distributed to fill the void of government relief. In 2020, one slice of viral ppang “fluffy” bread proved that an amateur chef was coping in the face of lockdown while others fell into the group of 30 million Americans lacking food as school closures, housing loss and unemployment skyrocketed poverty rates.
During the seismic global shifts that inspire Americans to bake bread (namely the fallout from the 1929 Stock Market Crash, World War II and COVID-19), the United States Department of Agriculture is forced to readjust and accommodate supply-chain disruptions. It is when the U.S. government struggles to provide adequate food aid that the duality of dough is in full effect; bread becomes a symbol of national resilience and national failure.
University of Michigan professor Charles Shipan, who specializes in American politics and public policy, clarified the USDA’s conflicting responsibilities during COVID-19. According to Dr. Shipan, “The USDA is always in a difficult position because two of its primary responsibilities are often in conflict with each other. On the one hand, the agency is supposed to protect and promote the interests of farmers. On the other hand, the agency is supposed to promote food safety and nutrition. And those two sets of responsibilities often don’t go together.”
Shipan notes that during the pandemic, the USDA had another responsibility, “to facilitate financial relief to agriculture interests that suffered economic losses from Covid.” While balancing a trifecta of citizen, farmer and economic interests, the agency has to adapt to food insecurity brought on by COVID-19. “My sense is that they did this well,” Shipan commented about the USDA’s food relief. “They helped to provide more assistance in the area of food security — making sure seniors, kids, moms, poor people and others continued to receive federal benefits that ensured access to food.”
Overall, the USDA effectively provided more federal benefits to food insecure individuals during the pandemic. However, federal assistance was not enough to stem the massive increase in food banks, where in 2020, four in 10 visitors were there for the first time.
The image of Americans forming long lines to receive food assistance challenged the notion of resolve and national unity created by the bread-makers online. While people waiting at the newly opened food pantries are strong and resilient, the image of modern breadlines shows how fallible the American food system truly is.
Because of their historical precedent, onlookers described the modern breadlines as “surreal,” and noted how chilling their frequency is. In one mile-long San Jose breadline, Americans who had never faced food insecurity before the pandemic commented on the stigma associated with participating in food bank assistance. If baking bread at home was a sign of personal resilience towards pandemic scarcity, the emerging breadlines were a sign of systemic fractures in American food relief.
Although personal strength can be limitless, and bakers can make thousands of ornate sourdough loaves to counter sterile COVID-19 policies, resilience is bounded by federal bureaucracy. In an online community of banana bread enthusiasts, more than one lives near a breadline. The way that bread, a universal but fairly inconspicuous food, has become a salient symbol in American culture for over a century is an effective way to measure the duality of experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Avery Crystal is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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