Why is Everyone Making Bread?

On the virtues of waking and baking during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the middle of the night I check on my bananas. It’s dark and cold, but the thought of them rotting in a temperate California spring is horrifying enough to push me out of bed at 2 a.m.

No one else is awake and thank god — the fruit is okay. I’m fully aware that worrying over four bananas is ridiculous, but it doesn’t stop a sigh of relief when I see them still intact in all their bruised glory. 

I know I’m not the only one who’s contended with something similar in the past few weeks. As city after city issued mandatory “shelter-in-place” orders to combat the coronavirus pandemic, I saw more and more photos of bread on Instagram. I saw proud mounds of sourdough, focaccia patterned with fingerprints, loaves of milk bread still in their tins. Aside from the savory classics, I saw banana bread — so much banana bread.

It’s not surprising that people are turning toward baking bread as a release. Baking bread is cheap, it’s time-consuming, it’s indoors, it’s useful, and it’s as healthy as its add-ons will be. It even feels like an absurd luxury. Baking bread — especially on a weekday — requires time and energy, and it engenders an idyllic and reassuring feeling of domestic control. 

Baking invokes a kind of primality that’s hopeful. By simply mixing flour, water and fats together, then adding heat we can give rise to sustenance. If you take away all the Kitchenaid mixers and the Tasty videos, we’re working with the same stuff our ancestors were centuries ago. It’s a reminder of that history, and a reminder of that inherent skill set of making food.

Banana bread though, is a little bit more complicated. Bananas are weirdly loaded in their symbolic imagery. The first time I saw bananas as anything other than fruit was in a middle school health class, when my teacher rolled a condom down one in a quick, scientific demonstration about safe sex. The second time was a year later, when I heard classmates tease each other about being a “whitewashed” Asian. “Are you a banana?” someone had asked. “Yellow on the outside, white on the inside?”

The third time happened recently, and requires some baking advice for a context. The thing about making banana bread is that it’s better to wait for the fruit as long as you possibly can. You want the bananas to be overripe, so soft to the touch that they could burst into a pulp in your hands if you weren’t careful enough. You want them to look nothing like they were before. 

It’s counterintuitive to watch fruit spoil, but that’s exactly what has to happen for the banana bread to be sweet and fragrant and light. It calls for the opposite instinct humans have when we’re faced with emergencies: to stock up on nonperishables; to fix things immediately; to do more than just sit around and wait.

Waiting has become anxiety-inducing, nerve-wracking work. What happens if you wait too long? What happens if you don’t wait long enough?

Of course, at the end of the day, bread is just bread. It’s only more than that if I imagine it to be.

But I do. So at 2 a.m., I stick the bananas in the fridge just to make sure they don’t ripen too far — that they’ll stay the same spotted black and yellow without putrefying. Hopefully, in the morning, I can make them into something worth the wait.

Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com.

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