With bread’s return to favor in the wellness world, consumers are ritualizing the baking process as an opportunity to slow down.
“Carb” was a dirty word among the healthy set for a long time. But even with the gluten-free mania that’s sweeping the scene, health-conscious consumers who once scorned carbs are embracing bread as a nutritious option for body and mind. Now, with consumers increasingly seeking out non-connected pastimes, the ritualization of baking is being launched into a cultural phenomenon.
Sourdough in particular has reached cult status as a therapeutic antidote to constantly connected modern lifestyles. “Making sourdough bread is the opposite of using the internet,” wrote Eve Peyser in her July 2018 piece for The New York Times titled ‘I Wanted A Dog. I Bake Bread Instead.’ “While the social media feed is driven by impulse, sourdough is intentional. It cannot be made on a whim…A post on a website floats somewhere in the digital content abyss; bread is real. It nourishes you. Karl Marx might’ve been onto something when he philosophized about how being alienated from our labor deprives you of life.”
The patience and trust required to make a sourdough starter – the mixture of water and flour that, once fermented, forms the signature tangy dough – fosters a surprisingly intense emotional connection. “I am a little bit in love with my sourdough starter,” confessed Bon Appetit writer Sophie Lucido Johnson in her February 2018 love letter to the bread. “You have to ‘feed’ it regularly with fresh flour, which makes it begin to feel like a member of the family,” she explained. “Sourdough has to be nurtured. You never get rid of it. It becomes something you talk about at Thanksgiving when your aunt asks you what’s new in your life.”
“You have to get familiar,” agreed Vanessa Kimbell, who runs The Sourdough School in the U.K. “It’s about hands, heart and mind coming together. It involves the whole of you.” For writer Kerri Wiginton, this emotional process was a form of healing. “I turned baking bread into a full-day meditation,” wrote Wiginton in her January 2019 article How Baking Sourdough Helped Me Stop Drinking and Stay Sober. “I get excited every time I pop the top off my Dutch oven to see how my little bread babies have grown. And I’m pretty sure I feel actual love for my starter,” which the writer affectionately named Calvin.
Even Silicon Valley, the epicenter of the tech world, can’t seem to get enough of the bread. Frank Shaw, head of communications at Microsoft, describes himself as the “owner of a fine sourdough starter” on his Twitter profile. Chad Robertson, the James Beard award-winning baker whose beloved bakery Tartine launched sourdough to fame in San Francisco, revealed to Eater that he “get[s] stopped at a lot of places in different cities and it’s mostly by guys in tech.”
“These well-off, internet-raised 20- and 30-somethings have turned to baking bread to self-impose a little offline time — it can take upwards of 40 hours to make just one loaf — to get closer to their mythical human roots, to go back to a time when everything took forever and nothing could be Seamlessed,” explained Dayna Evans in her November 2018 article, ‘Do You Even Bake, Bro?’
The entertainment industry is also tapping into the craze. The 2017 novel Sourdough is likely “the first novel in English to feature, as a key supporting character, a possibly-sentient sourdough starter,” according to the author Robin Sloan. The novel was named one of the best books of 2017 by NPR, San Francisco Chronicle, Barnes & Noble and Amazon. And the miniseries My Life in Sourdough chronicles the life of a French girl who falls in love with her sourdough starter. The creator Marie Constantinesco has won many accolades for the series, most recently the Best Food Filmmaker at NY Food Film Festival in 2018.
It’s clear that the ritual of baking is cementing its place in the cultural cannon by offering a welcome respite for wellness-obsessed millennials, especially as the health implications of social media are being called into question.
Main image courtesy of Modern Baker.