There are basically four ingredients in a loaf of bread. Flour, yeast, salt and water. That is all. But once upon a time, someone figured out that when these common ingredients were mixed together, allowed to rise, and baked in an oven in high heat, they became something quite extraordinary. Since that time, bread has fed our spirit and connected people and kitchens the world over.
But somewhere along the way to the present, we stopped making bread at home. Our days were busy, life was full, and leisure was reserved for vacations and holidays. Too often, the kitchen ceased to be a place where we gathered together to prepare and share meals. For our daily bread, we came to depend on grocery stores for sandwich breads and bakeries for sourdough, multi-grain and artisan breads because they were easily available. We forgot that baking and sharing meals together at home is a good thing.
But this year, the world and what is normal shifted. As a deadly coronavirus became a global pandemic, life as we’ve known it changed in profound ways. By mid-March, schools began to teach via Zoom, and businesses were forced to redesign how they operated. Unemployment soared as the virus spiked. Non-essential travel ground to a halt. Social distancing and wearing masks became a familiar part of life. People stopped greeting each other with hugs and handshakes. Grocery stores and restaurants offered take-out meals delivered or picked up at the curb. To help flatten the curve, health directives implored us to shelter-in-place at home. Suddenly, all we had was time. And that was when something on the back burner of our collective memory began to stir. We remembered the joy of cooking and baking at home.
Folks at the King Arthur Flour Company based in Norwich, Vermont can tell you exactly when they knew something big was happening. Six years ago, this regional New England flour company founded in 1790 launched a help hotline to troubleshoot questions from anxious novice home bakers. Then, according to an interview by Melissa Pasanen published in Vermont’s Independent Voice Seven Days (6/29/20), "a tsunami of home baking help calls was received by the hotline team the weekend of March 14."
In Pasanen’s article, "How the Pandemic Propelled King Arthur Flour Into the National Spotlight," she found that "normally the flour business is pretty sleepy and doesn’t grab headlines…but COVID-19 has affected almost everything, including the flour world….As the coronavirus pandemic…rolled out nationwide, homebound Americans were baking at an unprecedented rate — and they needed help."
Laurie Furch, one of the King Arthur Flour Company hotline helpers, explained their unexpected giant leap in mid-March calls this way. "Not only were people all learning how to bake…then Americans decided they all needed flour at the same time." At local grocery stores around the country, flour disappeared from the shelves or was limited to one bag per customer and packets of yeast could not be found. At that pandemic stay-at-home moment, millions of bakers turned to King Arthur for advice and to order flour, yeast and sourdough starter to fuel their new breadmaking passion. According to Pasanen’s article, "King Arthur catalog mailings have reached 8 million a year…. As people continued to crave comfort food and King Arthur Flour found itself in the national spotlight, the company found itself ranking No. 1 nationally for retail sales of unbleached, all-purpose flour."
At the same time, a small team of women here in Columbia convened via Zoom and launched a project to address food insecurity in our community. Our mission is this: "We believe that food is fundamental, and never more so than now as we turn to nourishing loved ones and are drawing family to table amid calls to shelter-in-place. With this connectiveness in mind, we launched The Common Ingredient (www.thecommoningredient.com). Here we share stories and recipes with each other, and in doing so, raise COVID-19 Relief Funds for The Food Bank of Central and Northeast Missouri, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Columbia, and LOVE, INC."
At our website, visitors meet featured chefs, read comfort food stories, try recipes, and can make an online donation to one of three heroic organizations feeding our community’s food needs. Visitors can also submit a recipe, food story and picture as well.
Coming soon are recipes and baking tips from international cookbook author Suzanne Dunaway ("No Need to Knead" and "At Home in Rome"). In my earlier life with Kit in Los Angeles, we lived up a small urban canyon where Suzanne was busy baking focaccia bread (with King Arthur Flour) and rosemary that grew wild in her backyard.
Today, Suzanne and her husband Don are sheltering-in-place at their home in SW France where she cooks from their garden and continues to bake traditional Italian breads. An ocean away, Kit and I continue to shelter-in-place at Boomerang Creek where our pantry is stocked with bags of King Arthur Flour and packets of fresh yeast. Once again, I’m baking focaccia bread from Suzanne’s cookbook.
We are all in this together. Rediscover the joy of cooking and start baking again, or for the first time. Visit "The Common Ingredient" website. It’s a joy-filled source of recipes and stories that comfort, feed and connect us. Shared by friends with links to our community, their common ingredient is love. (thecommoningredient.com)
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.