While many of us are only just discovering the art of baking bread, it is a tradition that spans thousands of years. Throughout history, bread has been a source of comfort, as well as sustenance, in good times and in bad times. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic our relationship with bread has changed. We are baking bread more than ever, but we are no longer breaking bread. Due to social distancing, we cannot eat our abundant fresh-from-the-oven loaves while gathered closely around the table with our friends and family.
The act of “breaking bread” is one of the oldest and most sentimental social rituals that we continue to practice regularly around the world. It has even subtly influenced our everyday language. The word “companion,” for example, which is used today to describe a friend, partner or caretaker, comes from the Latin com (with) and panis (bread), indicating that a true companion is someone you would share bread with.
A true companion is someone you would share bread with.
While in self-isolation, we are all suffering from a lack of companionship, but even now, bread can help us connect with others. Just as we have discovered with so many facets of our lives, baking bread can be a social activity that takes place across different video-chat platforms. I learned this last year while in a long-distance relationship. We began to bake bread together in front of our computers—as if on our own mini Food Network show—to share a special experience together during our time apart.
If you, like myself, feel that you are suddenly in a long-distance relationship with everyone in your life (even your next-door neighbors), I encourage you to try this practice as a way to feel closer to your loved ones.
Choose a baking buddy and a recipe.
Find a friend to join you for the baking process. You will both need a bag of flour and a good amount of enthusiasm. Next, decide together how much effort you are willing to put into this endeavor. If you have access to instant rise yeast, then you could each have a warm loaf of bread in hand in as little as two hours. Alternatively, if you are interested in baking sourdough bread, the process could stretch over as much as two weeks. (If you already have your own sourdough starter or if you are looking to start one, you might want to consider this Homemade Sourdough Bread recipe.)
Set a schedule.
Baking bread is the perfect activity for a period of self-isolation because it adds structure to your day. Taking care of a sourdough starter, on the other hand, can add a sense of routine and anticipation to your entire week (and well beyond). If you and your baking buddy decide to give sourdough a try, then you do not need to video-chat your way through the whole process, but you will need to find a time to begin your starter together. Over the course of the following days, it can be fun and helpful to send each other photos of your growing starters. Once you and your partner are ready to bake, set a date to prepare the bread dough.
Form your dough.
The dough for sourdough bread comes together quickly with just a few ingredients. Once you and your baking buddy have mixed the flour, water, salt and sourdough starter together, you will knead the dough for several minutes. I find this to be a perfect opportunity to be present with each other in a way that usually does not happen over video-chat. Allow yourselves to briefly forget about the pandemic. Instead, talk about the experience of kneading the dough, while fully engaging your senses. Smell its yeasty, slightly sour aroma. Feel the way the texture changes beneath your fingers from one minute to the next. Watch as the messy mixture transforms into a smooth ball.
A perfect opportunity to be present with each other.
Once your dough has come together, it will need to be covered and left on its own in a warm place for several hours. Prepare the dough right before bed so that you, your friend and your soon-to-be-bread can rest overnight. Plan a time to recommence the next morning (ideally, with a cup of coffee or tea in hand) as you each check to see how much the dough has risen and get ready to finally bake your bread.
Bake and break bread.
Coordinate the final step of the baking process with your friend so that your loaves come out of the oven at more or less the same time. Any good bread recipe will recommend waiting a while before cutting into the loaf, but living during a pandemic means that you do not have to follow these kinds of rules. When your bread is no longer too hot to handle, tear off a hunk and enjoy it! As with forming the dough, take this time to fully immerse yourself in the moment with your baking buddy. Despite the distance, you are connected to them and countless others through the timeless tradition of baking and breaking bread.
Have you ever baked bread before? How can this activity be used as a way to spend time with others while social distancing?
Image via Tessa Arias