Just a few weeks ago—which now means back in a different time entirely—I was in Los Angeles for work, and made plans to visit my friend Eric, a fashion photographer. Instead of catching up over dinner and drinks like normal people, he planned a 7:30 a.m. hike at Runyon Canyon. Fine, because I love the guy. Afterward, he suggested breakfast at his house. Great, I said, hoping for an egg. Instead, I got a “bowl,” which held a glob of something that was the color of wet cement. Eric was very pleased with himself. “Superfoods,” he said. “Adaptogenic herbs, sourced from Erewhon.” Eric wanted me to know he was “basically keto” and eating carbs “once a month, tops.” It tasted like garbage.
And now? Eric’s ordering pizza delivery twice a week. “Comfort food,” he tells me over Zoom, while stuffing his third slice of Jon & Vinny’s White Lightning into his mouth. “Nothing like it!”
Welcome to the second coming of carbs. If there’s one positive outcome of the coronavirus pandemic, it will surely be that bread is back, baby. According to a Google Trends report, the number of users searching for it hit an all-time high in mid-March. In a time when we’re all just trying to stay alive, it seems quaint to think that a sandwich could ever be some sort of a threat to one’s health.
As a thirtysomething American woman, I have always feared carbs way more than pandemics. (And I’m a fashion editor, which doesn’t help.) I blame the runaway success of the South Beach Diet, 15-plus years of anti-carb media bias, and a deeply ingrained (and now, it seems, retrograde and uncool) bias against my own personal muffin top. For as long as I can remember, I have ordered burgers sans bun, barked “No bread!” at well-meaning waiters, and poked croutons to the perimeter of my plate. But now that the world is maybe ending? Well, what the hell.
Welcome to the second coming of carbs. If there’s one positive outcome of the coronavirus pandemic, it will surely be that bread is back, baby.
And I know Eric and I are not alone, because the run on pasta and yeast and old-fashioned white flour at grocery stores throughout the U.S. and Western Europe has reflected that search for comfort that Eric finds in his pizza crust. Take my AIR MAIL colleague Stu Heritage, who has returned to baking bread after a four-year hiatus—even though his local markets in the U.K. are out of white flour. He’s made due with the expired whole-wheat stuff he found in the back of his cupboard, however. “But I’ve actually lost weight,” he tells me. (Then he considers it may have something to do with the Peloton he just bought to survive lockdown.)
My friend Lauren nixed carbs entirely when she was prepping for a book tour, and for the last 18 months it’s been one long slog of Bolognese sauce on spinach. But in these lean days, she’s changed her thinking. “I couldn’t buy beans, rice, and pasta with the intent of bulking up our meals and then not eat them myself,” she says diplomatically. “Mom can’t hog the meats and veggies.” But surely, I surmise, she’s digging this lifestyle change? “I’m enjoying eating,” she admits. “But I worry about the inflammatory response.”
Me, not so much. Right now, anything made with flour keeps me sane. On my second day of lockdown, I found white flour and an expired packet of Fleischmann’s yeast in the cupboard and baked my first-ever loaf of bread. (Shout-out to the No-Knead Bread recipe on the NYT Cooking app, created by Sullivan Street Bakery’s Jim Lahey.) It was delicious, quasi-free, and totally gone in 24 hours. Ever since, I’ve made a fresh loaf every other day.
All of this has reminded me of my childhood, when my uncle Bruce, who recently retired from a 40-year career at General Mills, in Minneapolis, would send us his latest cookie and muffin mixes. So I e-mailed him, asking about (among other things) his reaction to the return of what he charmingly calls “family flour.” It could just be a trend, he warns, but he’s optimistic that the keto set might get hooked on the romance of home baking. “It’s like writing a personal note,” he says. “Baking says, ‘I care, and I care especially about you.’”
Yesterday, my husband came home from his weekly expedition to the IGA, bearing the usual mix of canned and dry goods—and a paper-sheathed baguette. I looked at the price tag—$4.59! In these times?!—and promptly went ballistic, which I do about every 15 minutes these days. “I could have made that for 15 cents!,” I fumed. “They were out of yeast,” he explained sheepishly. I gestured to a glass bowl containing a lazily bubbling paste that was the color of, well, yeast. It’s the beginnings of my own sourdough starter.
Ashley Baker is the Style Editor for Air Mail