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The Quad: Understanding the science behind a rise in baking during the pandemic

A recent study showed many subsistence activities, such as baking, rose significantly during the pandemic. (Photo by Anika Chakrabarti/Daily Bruin staff. Photo illustration by Jaelen Cruz/Daily Bruin)

By Nicole Wu

Feb. 23, 2021 2:17 p.m.

At the age of 10, a red KitchenAid stand mixer and a bundle of baking ingredients was all I needed to whip up a sweet concoction for my family and friends.

Though I have known the joy of baking long before the pandemic, a new generation of bakers are putting their kitchens to good use while stuck at home. As it turns out, the flour flying off market shelves and dessert posts filling up my Instagram feed can be explained by science.

A recent study by Harvard psychology student Noah F.G. Evers, UCLA distinguished professor of psychology Patricia M. Greenfield and high school student Gabriel Evers investigated the effect of COVID-19 on different types of activities.

The researchers included baking in a category they termed “subsistence activities,” that are similar to what lifestyles would have been like in the past where there were higher mortality rates and greater danger.

They found evidence that the pandemic has led to a significant rise in subsistence activities like baking when compared to the months before COVID-19 was declared a national emergency.

According to a press release for the study, Google searches for “sourdough” increased by 384% and Twitter mentions increased by 460% after the pandemic began. The phrase “baking bread” also surged – Google searches increased by 265% and Twitter mentions rose 354%.

“It seems kind of like a natural response for human survival. You need food to survive,” Greenfield said.

Greenfield said being in control of your environment, especially your food, is necessary for survival – so when the pandemic brought survival instincts to the forefront of people’s minds, it only made sense that subsistence activities like baking were included as well.

Greenfield said she realized when watching herself and her family adjust to the pandemic that there was greater attention to cooking and baking. She said she connected this realization with her experiences in a Maya community in Chiapas, Mexico, where the villagers’ subsistence lifestyle somewhat mirrored that of COVID-19 lockdowns.

According to a HuffPost article, baking allows for creative self-expression, which provides an opportunity to cope with stress. This act of mindfulness is not just self-serving, but it is also a way to express love to those lucky enough to munch on your baked goods.

Tian Ouyang, a first-year statistics student, said he enjoys offering his freshly baked bread to those he has been unable to visit during the pandemic, such as his grandparents.

“Once you start baking, you kind of cannot stop, both because you like the things that you made, but also you can see the joy that you bring to people,” Ouyang said.

Ouyang said he first started baking a couple months after COVID-19 lockdowns were put in place when realized he wouldn’t be able to pick up baked goods from his favorite bakery. He was craving fresh bread and found a recipe for Japanese Hokkaido-style milk bread. Since this first attempt, he said he has continued to become more confident in his abilities.

“I am planning to explore a different type of bread. The next one that I’m going for is probably actually hamburger buns because I also haven’t eaten a burger in a long time, Ouyang said.

Ouyang said he thinks baking has become such a pervasive part of quarantine because people are afraid to go out to get the food they crave during a pandemic. However, for Ouyang, baking is more than just the bread that comes out of it.

“When I see my father enjoying my bread or when I see my grandparents enjoy my bread, I feel happiness from the bottom of my heart, even though I’m not the one eating the bread, but because I know that they like the bread. I feel happy,” Ouyang said.

Ouyang said he also appreciates the process because it allows him to get his mind off anything stressful during the pandemic.

Ouyang may be a new baker, but second-year pre-human biology and society student Audrie Lau has been baking for about six years.

“What I really love about baking is you start off with a recipe that you found on the internet, … you make little changes and then eventually the recipe kind of becomes your own,” Lau said.

For Lau, she said her baking experiences began because she wanted something good to eat, but she now views baking as a therapeutic activity.

“Especially in the beginning (of quarantine), everyone’s really stressed and anxious about what’s going on, and it’s just nice to focus on something external, like baking (and) … having something come out of the kitchen,” Lau said.

Though the pandemic has dictated what hobbies we cannot pursue right now, those like Ouyang, Lau and I may be grateful that baking is not one of those lost hobbies.

“There’s so much you can’t do, that these activities you can do have become so important and meaningful,” Greenfield said.

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Nicole Wu
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