Baking and Breaking Bread: The COVID-19 lockdown’s obsession with sourdough

Izzy Davies
BSc Anthropology

As this article will demonstrate, in times of chronic waiting due to social exclusion, people seek out tasks that give structure and integrate them into society. Baking and sharing bread satisfy both these criteria and have the added long-standing association of sustenance and care. On closer examination, we can see that sourdough is unique in forging and embodying social connection chains due to the living starter which is passed around and nurtured. Delving in further, this article will attempt to understand the origins of this culture of caregiving and sociality, exploring how Foucault’s theories of ‘power-truth’ and ‘biopolitics’ could be creating these ideals and desires.

To understand the current sourdough baking obsession, we must first examine how the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown have led to behavioural changes. As of June 14th, 2020, over a quarter of the population of England were furloughed (HMRC 2020), leading to a nation-wide experience of boredom and waiting. In fieldwork after the 2009 global recession, O’Neill documented boredom in homeless Romanian people, concluding that exclusion from the workplace and the consumer industry further excluded informants from society and the possibilities of forming social relationships, culminating in a ‘gnawing sense of isolation’ and boredom taking hold (O’Neill 2017). The explanation of chronic waiting as theorised by Husserl and Bourdieu (1991; 2000) argues that when one’s experience of quotidian life declines radically; the predictability of everyday activities weighs on the individual as a ‘burden’. This is further exemplified in Stepputat’s study of Guatemalan refugees, where he describes a culture of temporal angst (1992). These feelings of ‘drift’ are seen as ‘the thing to fight during in a lockdown’ (Williams 2020), with people trying to remain positive despite the daunting stretch of time spent inside and isolated.

Bourdieu (2000) was pessimistic of boredom’s ability to motivate people, but researchers such as Kracauer (1955) and Frederiksen (2013) have argued against this, viewing it as an active, dynamic process. The informants in Frederiksen’s work give themselves tasks ‘to keep the engine running’ while waiting for employment, assigning order to break ‘time-loops’. The idea that ‘baking gives your day structure’ is felt by many people (Williams 2020). This is particularly true for sourdough, with the process requiring various check ins throughout the day, as well as the weeks spent cultivating and feeding the starter. The loaf requires time, troubleshooting and persistence to ensure an edible outcome – it is far too easy to create a loaf that is too dense, dry or sticky. In this way adding unavoidable structure to the seemingly endless loop of lockdown.

This desire to create structure is seen repeatedly in studies of waiting: in informal work among the retired in Romania (Weber 2014: 15–24); community-based work among urban slum dwellers in Mumbai (Appadurai 2002); and volunteering among asylum seekers in Ireland (Conlon 2007), where informants describe using volunteering to escape the tedium of waiting and assimilate themselves into Irish society. This theme of integration into society is also recurring, as informants seek out tasks that connect them with the community and world of work from which they have been marginalised. This also acts as a key factor in why people have chosen bread-making as the task to fill their days – its ability to create and strengthen social connections.

Bread is a core element of the European and American diet with evidence for the preparation of bread-like products 14,400 years ago (Arranz-Otaegui et al. 2018: 79125-7930) showing our relationship with bread is ancient and longstanding. In some cultures, the connection between bread and care is clearly represented – such as the ‘casual care’ processes involved in buying Baladi bread in Cairo (Barnes and Taher 2019: 417–443), where buyers carefully inspect bread to ensure they bring a high quality home to their family. More broadly, Choe’s research on Hong Sang-su’s films and their representation of contemporary Korea, found both emotion and food are portrayed as ‘objects of social relations’. Choe found that the films show uncommunicable emotions taking place through shared consumption of food (2009: 1–28; 167). We can see the sharing of food and bread have a longstanding association with practices of social connection and care – perhaps it is no wonder people are so inclined to bake during times of upheaval and isolation.

These ideas are reminiscent of Miller’s theory of shopping as a form of creating and expressing love, enabling people to show care and gratitude through actions (Miller 1998). Understanding the baking and sharing of sourdough in this way – as a means of producing and manifesting social ties through care – lets us consider it as a method of creating kinship. Sourdough is unique in that it involves the passing round through many people and potentially over many years, of a living ‘starter’. If uncared for, the starter will die and so too will the years of care and community embodied within. This is reminiscent, to an extent, of the Kula exchange rites of the Trobriand islanders – both create and embody a social chain through the owners as they are passed round and exchanged through society (Malinowski 1961). It is not uncommon practice to send a finished loaf back to the giver of one’s starter, creating a reciprocal exchange of gifts, as well as expanding a web of social connections to friends, family, neighbours and frontline workers.

Miller describes shopping as the ‘interweaving of intra-household love’, but in the case of breadmaking and sharing, we can see this stretching out beyond the immediate household, creating a form of ‘inter-household love’, care and sociality. Mauss explained the Kula rings as gifts (Mauss 1950), and the sourdoughs fulfil the same criteria. They too forge alliances between members of a society, perhaps more effectively now as we are isolated from a sense of the state and society as a whole. The baking and sharing of bread satisfy the aforementioned urge to integrate with the society from which one has been excluded. One interviewee remarked, ‘bread is about care and support. It’s days of work they’re handing over to you. It means a lot’ (Bryan 2020). This implies the sourdoughs are highly regarded as gifts and succeed in creating an emotional and social bond.

However, a key idea within Mauss’ work – the obligation to partake in reciprocal exchange – is not entirely compatible with the notion of care. Siegel (2013), building on Testart (1998), points to the example of beggars – one is almost entirely certain no reciprocal exchange will occur and the two have no reason to trust each other, but ‘one gives anyway’ to ‘show one cares’ (Siegel 2013: 60–79). The very notion of caring, for example for the elderly (Kleinman 2009: 292-94), often depends on the acceptance of no chance of reciprocal exchange. Although this is the nature of the gift – it must be freely given – according to Mauss, this lack of reciprocal exchange should imply problems for kinship and care. Similarly, people baking loaves would likely balk at the idea they bake them for the purpose of getting something back, as for them it comes from a desire to care and create or maintain social ties.

This power of the gift can be understood through a Foucauldian perspective that these desires to bake for care and kinship are formed from an intersection between human biology and politics – they are ‘biopolitical’.  (Foucault 2003). Even Mauss’ in-depth study described the pressure-exerting abilities of the gift as ‘almost magical’ (1950). Miller too, notes we view ourselves as living towards ‘higher goals and values’, the morality of which is instilled within us, but is limited in his exploration of what exactly instils these values in us. Foucault explains this through the idea of decentralised, omnipresent ‘power-truth’ that creates morality by telling us caring and providing for others is the ‘right’ thing to do (Foucault 1997: 543–550). Bobrow-Strain (2008: 19–40) notes a similar use of biopolitics to control public health relating to white bread production and consumption in the 1800s. Middle class social reformers were entreated to extend their care outside the home, for example doctors urged middle-class women to provide ‘continuous oversight’ of the ‘diet and hygiene’ of children in poverty (Chapin 1922: 9). This decentralisation of power into the public sphere in order to monitor public health aligns clearly with Foucault’s ideas and is again appearing within the sourdough sharing movement. In the time of COVID-19 crisis, the sociality, care and love expressed through baking becomes a quasi-patriotic act, produced by power-truth ideas about morality, caregiving and alliance against a common enemy – the virus.

To conclude, the task of baking and gifting sourdough bread is an understandable response to the COVID-19 pandemic, adding structure to the surplus time and creating and maintaining social ties. Due to humans’ longstanding relationship with bread, the extreme lengths of time involved in baking and the chain of personhood embodied within each mixture, sourdough gifting successfully creates a bond of care between the giver and receiver. However, even these urges themselves may be formulated through decentralised power-truths, pushing the idea that we have an obligation to occupy ourselves and provide sustenance, care and social connection to each other, in the interest of public health and happiness.

Title image: ‘Public market in Cairo’ by Lykourgos Kogevinas

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